I wanted a short story that involved Gary Hartmann, the protagonist of my latest novel “Worlds Without End,” piloting an airplane, as I mention that in the story. I lay down about half of this yesterday but was at a total standstill for most of today. Finally saw what happened to John Carell and wrote the rest down.
Gary Hartmann adjusted the trim tabs on the tail of the twin-prop Piper Seminole airplane as they followed the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains toward the northeast. The weather was clear and he could see both the village of Kingsport to his port and the line of old Interstate Eight-One below them. IFR, he thought with almost a smile. ‘I fly roadways, indeed!’
“The Holston Army Plant has been in our sphere of control since right after the Breakup,” the older man in the co-pilot seat to his right said though his mic into Gary’s headphones, noting his look to their left. “Radford is just a step further out.”
First checking his instruments that they were still in fact at nine thousand feet AGL, Gary looked left to one of his two passengers.
John Carell was a fixture of the Society, the armed forces of Knoxville since the earliest parts of the Breakup. Age had only made his open face and broad smile beneath light brown hair just white at the edges a bit more weathered.
He looks like the perfect grandfather, Gary thought. The most amazing liar I have ever known. As always, I must be cautious.
“Kingsport is a mere one hundred miles from our City,” Gary spoke into his mic. “Even in our brief horse-drawn days, it made sense to make sure that the munitions factories of Holston remained under our control. Radford is another hundred miles beyond that. Easy enough to visit. But to control?”
Gary shook his head once and returned to his instruments and the sky.
“Oh, come on, LT Hartmann!” came the call into his headphone from Graham, the Observer/Spotter in the rear seat, “that puts us on the doorstep of Roanoke! If the Princess wants a Crusade to Norfolk, it’s the perfect jumping-off point!”
“She is not and I desire no such thing,” Gary muttered, not caring if they heard; he regarded his sister’s slide into madness with sadness. Carell laughed anyway, amused by any human failing, even his own.
“So where are you putting down,” Carell asked on the heels of his laughter. “The Virginia Tech runway?”
“No,” Gary replied already making preparations for their descent. “While it is a better maintained site it also places a large hill between us – well, you – and your destination of the Ammunition Plant. I’m landing at the little New River Valley strip. There should be a team waiting there.”
“Should be,” the older man reflected, looking at the ground.
“One of the reasons I am going to make a few fly-bys first, Mister Carell,” Gary said, addressing his concern as they lost altitude. He banked sharply left over the Radford complex itself before circling back southwest the few miles to the airstrip. There was a truck and two Hummers waiting for them. He pushed the button under his left thumb.
“Knoxville Air Recon One to Radford Escort Team: secure to land?” he sent.
“Radford Escort to Air One: all’s good here!” was the immediate response.
Gary banked left then left again to bring them in on final, landing to the northeast. The small plane shuddered as the gear and flaps came down. He scowled slightly at touchdown to correct for a gust of wind off the mountains to their port side.
“Soft landing,” Carell observed. “But you are a perfectionist.”
“In some things, yes, Mister Carell,” Gary replied, swinging them left onto the taxiway and left again toward the waiting men. Only when he recognized the staff sergeant did Gary begin the engine shutdown process.
John Carell opened the aircraft’s door and stepped out and down the wing. Graham collapsed the co-pilot seat forward and followed him.
“Thanks for the ride, Gary!” he called with a wave.
“Of course,” Gary replied to the door swung shut. He continued the shutdown protocol.
A short time later, after his two passengers had been driven off, Gary also deplaned. One Hummer and two riflemen had stayed behind to keep watch over him and the aircraft. Taking a moment for himself, he looked east at the Appalachians and reflected on how he got here.
“Your uncle told us that the lack of terrain features in our home is a great motivator to learn IFR,” Fausta said to Gary from her place in the co-pilot’s seat of what seemed a Cessna 152.
“Did he?” Gary echoed, trying to pay attention to the instruments on this, his twentieth – according to them – hour in the air. “So unlike my trip to tribe Mendro with Henge, it’s not a matter of eventually showing up somewhere else?”
“Of course not! You know better than to ask that!” Fausta boomed through her mic into his headset while leaning over to ruffle his hair with her left hand. “We do all this because we love all of you!”
Gary recognized her reference to the Fourth Law as he carefully banked right and out over the sea. The sea made by his wife.
“It was good of Thaad to keep this place in existence once Henge came to our home,” he said, leveling off and adjusting the trim tabs against a slight wind. “It is very special for us.”
“Yes. We know.” Fausta’s voice dropped as she looked right. He was about to ask when she continued. “I remember the first time she came back here, after becoming one of you, it was… odd to me. I did not even recognize her at first. I had to use my android’s memories to update my real self as to what she looked like.”
What a normal human would have found tortuous Gary merely found sad.
“You know, Fausta, that none of us ever meant harm or insult to your family,” he said softly while drawing back on the controls to increase their altitude. The constructs in their home had no real ceiling but there were some oddities…
“Of course not!” Fausta heartily agreed. “We know that! If we didn’t think it would utterly collapse your nervous system I’d love to show you the arguments your then-girlfriend had with her father, Thaad, about her decision to become mortal!”
“That bad?” he allowed a glance right to her as the ochre mist occluded the sea below.
Fausta turned to bring her brilliant emerald eyes and great, toothy smile back onto him.
“Epic! I hoped at the time they would come to blows! I love a good fight!” she almost yelled in the tiny cabin.
“Glad they didn’t,” he said, leveling off.
“You want to see her again,” Fausta said after a moment, looking about, not meaning Henge.
Gary had spent his whole life amongst the machines and knew to never lie.
“She is, to my eyes, very interesting. A shame she chooses to not interact with humans.”
Only once before, on his fifth flying lesson, had their little plane been buzzed by an enormous bird, twenty yards across, made entirely of fire: a phoenix. Fausta had seized the controls and steadied them before explaining that they had just seen her sister, Ninon.
“Does she have a vocation?” he had asked.
“Mmm. She borrows satellites and radio telescopes to look about for others such as us. Your aircraft,” she concluded, taking her hands off the wheel.
“My aircraft,” Gary muttered to the cool breeze off the old eastern mountains. “Which I should be re-checking before my flight home!”
“Ready to head home, eltee?” one of the riflemen called to Gary’s brevet rank in the Society as one of their few pilots.
“Ready, but waiting upon Mister Carell’s assessment of what we can do at the Ammunition Plant…”
“Tell your wife and the Princess that we all love them both!”
Gary just stared. The rifleman, Grant, he recalled, was in his late twenties with a sterling record. The fact that he calls out Henge and Faustina in such a way…
Henge’s manifestation as a mortal to be his wife had been one thing. Gary suspected that his sister had never fully come to grips with their friend Tracy Gannt slipping her mortal coil for life in the Wired was the other. She has such odd ideas about humans and machines, only coming close to the ideas of Reina of tribe Mendrovovitch…
“I shall when I see them! Thank you for thinking of my family!” he forced emotion into his reply. It was still hard for him. Only with Henge, in private, could he –
“What the hell is that?!” the other rifleman suddenly yelled.
Gary instantly pivoted and scanned the sky for a possible threat. Moving from east to west at speed with no contrail was…
I wish I had field glasses, he thought.
Maybe ten thousand feet AGL, something like a ball of fire with wings beat its way across the sky.
My friend, Pavel, in his most secret utterances to me, was correct: the Breakup was never just about the dissolution of the United States and later Western Europe. We live in a new world.
Gary returned to his inspection, pretending he didn’t see anything. Two hours later, bored, he pulled a notebook from one of his many pockets to write some verses about how he missed Henge and all the things he wanted to do –
The wind carried an odd sound from the northeast: something like popcorn popping. The two guards were on their feet, staring into the distance. Gary opened the airplane door and powered up the radio.
“Turkey calling Grouse,” Carell was the one who specified their call names, “please respond!”
Nothing. He was about to try again when John Carell did.
“This is Grouse. Trouble.” For their most experienced man to say that was not at all good. “Looks like we may have poked an Old Eagle. We’re caught. Get out, Turkey. Over.”
Gary did not bother with niceties.
“We are leaving! NOW!” he yelled to the two men. “Get in!”
He pulled himself into the pilot’s seat and immediately began emergency startup, skipping several safety steps to get them off the ground soonest. The younger rifleman pushed his way into the back seat as Grant passed his rifle to him and began buckling up next to Gary. Typical for the Society no one spoke.
With the port engine turned over he was already moving them from the tarmac out onto the runway. The starboard engine coughed to life just as he was making a 180 turn. Gary pushed the throttles to eighty percent as they roared forward. He rotated them off the ground seconds later. Now that Grant had his headset on he spoke.
“Ground team is captured by what may be remnants of the Federal government, obviously just a regional power after all these years,” Gary said while turning them immediately toward the northwest and the foothills while still climbing. “I’m going to get around behind them and come in for a low visual pass from the northeast. I’m relying on both of you to look sharp.”
“Yes, sir,” Grant replied.
The green hills rolled away under them; no sign of any human activity. He was just about to turn southeast when he tried the radio again.
“Turkey calling Grouse, come in please,” he called. Then called again. Nothing.
Coming over the empty town of Blacksburg he dropped them to three thousand AGL and pushed the engines to ninety percent. His eyes flicking up for shoulder-launched missiles and back down to his instruments allowed him no chance to look about. They were over and past the Ammunition Plant in a moment. Gary began evasive maneuvers as he slowly climbed into the sky.
Rather than following the old Interstate as he had on the way up, he drifted them about ten miles starboard over the mountains. Only then did he feel comfortable talking.
“What did y’all see?” he asked.
“A few Hummers, jeeps, what looked like school buses. No trucks. No armor,” Grant replied crisp and concise.
Gary considered their altitude and distance to the Johnson City/Kingsport area. He changed the radio’s frequency and mashed the call button with his left thumb.
“Turkey calling Johnson Control, priority,” he paused, about to call again.
“Princess answering for Johnson Control,” he winced to hear his little sister’s voice. “Report, please.”
“Grouse was bagged. Suspect Old Eagle. I am bypassing your position to Home. Battle Dwarf will need our intel soonest.” He took a breath. “As acting lieutenant, I order you to take no action!”
He expected push-back…
“Understood. Princess will take no action. At this time. Deus Volt, brother! Out!”
“Day-us… what?” Grant asked after a moment.
“Nothing, Corporal, nothing,” he sighed. It had better be nothing. Our fragile home cannot bear a war now… “As soon as we are home we go straight to General Finlan. He will need to know what you two saw to put together a rescue mission.”
“Rescue mission,” Grant reflected. “And what if our people have been evac’d to DC?”
Gary made no reply, fearful of all the myriad ways he was seeing the future unfold behind his eyes.