‘TODAY WE UNVEIL a new age of aviation. A new era of flight that takes us to the skies with more grace, freedom, and magic than ever before.’
I watch Tom from the auditorium’s wing. Esteemed scientists, professors, journalists fix their eyes on him as he strides about the stage. Fourteen cameras point up at him, transmitting live feeds to the world’s major news networks. The Americas are watching. Europe is watching. Asia is watching. Africa is watching. Australia is watching. Hell, even Antarctica is watching. I only wish my family was watching.
‘What we present to you today,’ Tom says. ‘Will revolutionize the world. We’re working hard to ensure that every family in the world will have one of these inventions. What we bring before you today will reduce the global suicide rate by ninety-five percent. It will reduce the global homicide rate by ninety-five percent. And it will boost global happiness by ten million percent.’
The audience laughs. Tom’s smile is infectious.
‘Okay, we don’t know about that. But look at me. Don’t I look happy?’
He smiles with his entire body. Showtime. My stomach swirls. Luckily I don’t have to speak. Just demonstrate the machine. I look at the metallic casing around my arms. A robotic Icarus.
‘Technology has brought humanity closer to Heaven,’ Tom says. ‘Gone are the days of being weighed down. Down to earth. That phrase is popular, isn’t it? As if it’s good to have your feet flat on the ground. It’s not. It’s a burden. Have you ever seen a bird that wasn’t free? Apart from the ones we cage, of course. We are caged birds. Nature has caged us in this body. But we have souls that need to soar.’
Tom looks at me standing in the shadows of the wing. The audience turns. Cameras swivel. A billion eyes are upon me. I try to soothe my breathing.
‘Without further ado, I give you Invinci Corp’s gift to the world: The Lark!’
The speakers play Vaughn Williams. A hundred scorching theatre lights switch from beige to blue. The screen displays the drawings of Da Vinci’s flying machines. I step forward.
The crowd chatters. Tom smiles and waits. Let them talk, his expression says. I stretch out my arms and twirl for the crowd. I see Laura sitting in the front row with Time. The divorce has treated her well.
‘This isn’t art,’ Tom says. ‘This isn’t a hoax.’
Tom strides to the edge of the stage. The flash of cameras light his face. Journalists scribble without looking down.
‘This is a technological liberation of the soul.’
He beckons me forward. Tom looks up at the roof and signals backstage. The roof slides open, revealing the cool San Francisco sky.
‘But enough words,’ Tom says. ‘Who needs words when you have wings? Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, The Lark.’
He bows his head and steps back. This is it. All eyes on me. My heart beats in ten different places. My mouth is dry and my hands are wet. This is what I’ve been doing for the past two years, Laura.
I extend my arms, displaying the magnificence of the gilded metal wings. I conduct a mental scan for any bodily tension. I’ve done well to rid my muscles of tightness over the years but now my legs, back, neck, everywhere is cramping and stiff.
I run through the breathing protocol. In through the nose for five seconds, hold for three, out through the mouth for four, hold for one, and repeat. I do five rounds before I’ve adequately loosened my muscles and prepared my body for flight. I signal for my musculature to relinquish control to the robotic wings.
My right hand grips the control stick. The only power I have over the machine is in that hand. The middle finger controls take-off and acceleration. The thumb controls deceleration. The ring finger is for gliding and landing. Two months of ten-hour training days and five near-fatal crashes later and my fingers contain the intuitive power of the wings.
I hit the accelerator. The wings flap. They make stunning whoosh sounds. The audience marvels. Laura recoils. I am one with the machine. I am the Lark.
My legs start running. My head juts forward. The wings take me across the stage. My feet hop. Everybody’s going to see. I lost them once but now they’ll see.
I see Laura before my final leap. Our eyes meet for the first time, outside of my dreams, in years. She stands and leaves.
One last bound and I’m airborne again, air born again, headed for the sky. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Steady, dominant, all-powerful wings take me into the heavens. My heart bruises my chest. My mouth tugs into a smile. Tears bathe my face. The air braces me. I’m free.
The world becomes insignificant as the wings take me higher and higher. More acceleration. Faster, faster. Upwards. I spin. My soul heaves.
I’m in the clouds. A speck to the people below. I breathe in beautiful icy air. It quenches me. The sun glints from behind a cloud like a wise, golden companion.
‘Hello!’ I cry at the sun, breaking into laughter. ‘I love you!’
The wings carry me higher. My head feels as though filled with helium. I welcome the feeling.
Nausea hits and thaws in my stomach. I’ve gone too high. I steer the wings and nose-dive through the clouds. I see it all. The majesty of God’s creation. A Catherine Wheel of blackbirds explodes outwards from their mid-air cumulus nest. The Golden Gate Bridge’s fire-red peak pokes through the sea-froth mist like a beacon of hope. Skyscrapers cloister against each other on the promontory. I laugh at the people mindlessly pushing keys beneath fluorescent lights. And I’m up here. Like a bird. Like a king. Like a god.
Then something goes wrong. Laura sticks in my mind. My children stick in my mind. My father, mother, brother, sister, all stick in my mind. The panoramic beauty, like a feast spread before a titan, fades from view. I can’t escape. I shake my head. It’s no use.
I turn over but the wind shoves me from my trajectory, like the Almighty’s finger flicking me aside. Cloud moisture blinds me. I recompose myself. But not for long. I spin downwards against the wind. All is smeared by a fog-screen. Memories like a sick news reel spin through my mind. Laura pulling me by the arm, begging. My father throwing his hands up and walking away. My mother’s tears. My daughter’s tears. My son’s tears. And Laura again. Telling me to stop. Telling me she’ll leave. She means it. She’ll leave. I see myself mouth the words ‘go ahead’.
The lecture building appears. I prepare for landing but another gust drags me away. The Pacific Ocean hurtles into view.
My vision is assaulted by sparkling blue water, polluted grey mist, and Laura. Tears sting my eyes. I’ve got to go after her.
I crack my wrist upwards. Up, up, up. Then the wings halt. They stop flapping. I’m sliding on the belly of momentum. Nothing more. I stop completely. Mid-air, unmoving, stuck.
I hit the accelerator. Nothing. I hit it again. And again. Damn. My clenching jaw chips my teeth. Do something! Gravity wraps its hands around my ankles, grips hard, and yanks me down.
My heart clogs my throat. I try to move the wings with my own arms. How did they become so heavy? Down, down, down I go. A syrupy hallucination hits me. I imagine I’m on a plummeting plane.
‘Thank you for flying with Death Airlines,’ I hear. ‘The only airline with a one hundred percent mortality guarantee. In approximately ten seconds we will be landing in the mouth of Hell. Brace! Brace!’
I hit the water with a crack. My legs and spine break. I go under. Icy salt water fills up my lungs like a generous host. A school of salmon swim by. Then all goes to black.
The next thing I see is Laura at twenty. Her head is in my lap. We’re in our old studio apartment back when our future looked bright. Her eyes, deep and loving and blue, look into mine. She puts my hand on her belly. She’s nine months pregnant with Sarah. Her lips stretch into a smile. She says something. I can’t hear. I lean in and receive the gift of her flowery scent.
‘I love you,’ she says.
I open my eyes. They’re bruised. Everywhere is bruised. The present-day Laura is beside me, fingers threading with mine. I take a breath and it’s like a blade between the ribs. Gentle beeping emits from the heart rate monitor beside me. Little peaks and valleys proclaim I’m alive. Laura leans in and whispers the question I’ve heard a million times.
‘When are you going to come back down to earth?’