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by T.M. Thomas
We were chasing pieces of metal and loose paper around the cabin, still strapped to our chairs, when the radio started to squawk. Brenner’s grin couldn’t have been bigger. He fumbled plastic buttons that had shaken loose from the panel from hand to hand as he tried to toggle switches that weren’t there anymore, jamming little pieces of plastic into gaps in the plastic panel. He’d pulled it from something that hadn’t been up to the stress of flight, given the way the plastic had cracked during liftoff.
“Unidentified craft, this is Tally Tower B. Please identify yourself,” the slightly-stressed female voice drizzled from the cracked speaker case.
Brenner gave a little hoot as he reached overhead and grabbed the dangling cord, pulling the handset close. “Sally Anderson, is that you?”
“Brenner? Is that you? What are you doing? You said you were going to Orly City on vacation.” She’d changed from official to maternal at the sound of his voice.
We shook again as the second stage kicked in, dropping the big fuel tank that was once again just a big round tube we’d found in an old ditch off the abandoned interstate spur. I grabbed the armrests on my chair, scavenged from a rusted old Chevy. Brenner’s bulk was stuffed onto a vinyl seat from something so rusty we didn’t even know what it was. It’d been in the part of town burnt in the food riots last summer, but he took its survival as a good reason to put it onto his ship.
“Sally, it’s working. I told you I’d get it working.” He was beaming as he shouted into the little plastic grille.
I leaned over and looked out the window. It was caked with a lot of soot and dust from the liftoff. Below, the shapes of Tally City were becoming geometrically abstract. I couldn’t tell the rice fields from the wastelands at this height, as everything was a pleasant green.
“Bren, you aren’t cleared for launch. No civilian ship is clear for launch. You need to abort. You’re nearing the civilian altitude ceiling.”
“I told you we’d get into the air. Into low orbit, even. The first one in four decades!”
“Bren, you aren’t,” Sally started. I sort of remembered her. A pale little dark-haired woman who liked the rules. Nothing like Bren at all. But then, everyone that worked in the towers liked the rules except for him. Probably why we’d become friends.
“Brenner Del Marks, abort and return to the ground now,” a male voice boomed. I shied away from the speakers way too close to my ears, although I really had nowhere to go. The volume knob was one of the ones in Bren’s hand, anyway.
“Sorry, Mr. Richardson. It’s always been my dream to do this and I’m doing it.”
“Bren, the Air Force is requiring that you turn back now. They’ll scramble ships from Jax City and be on you fast.”
“Boss, I’m sorry, but I have to do this. It’s my dream. I’ll face jail or whatever if I have to, but I’m doing it. I’m proving we can launch rockets again, like we used to. We can go to space. We can make science a priority again.”
“Bren, it’s not…,” Mr. Richardson said, his voice a lot quieter. Other voices were saying something in the background, but I couldn’t make it out over the bad speakers. Short angry barks of noise. “Good luck to you, Bren. You’ve done well.”
The radio went dead. He looked at me, a little confused, but with that grin following a moment later on his big round face. I looked again, watching the city below disappear as we entered the big grey clouds.
“Ready?” he smiled. I nodded.
We burst from the clouds into brilliant sunshine. It was brighter than anything I’d seen, below all the smog and soot from the power plants and fires. We shook a little less as the air thinned. The seconds crawled by until the clouds were just a silver floor down below us. I tapped the altimeter and it spun freely.
“I think we’ve matched Shepard’s altitude,” I said, but when I looked up Bren was just staring out the window.
Two ships hung there, like they were waiting, and then matched our speed in an instant. They were big teardrop shaped silver things, larger than most Tally City houses. They weren’t shooting out fire and smoke like our ship. They just sort of hung there.
“What?” I started to ask. Bren was still staring at them, mouth open.
“Unidentified human ship,” the speaker crackled again. This time it was barely audible and sounded like a machine. Detached and inhuman, like the nightly warning of curfews in Tally City that were death to ignore but so boring to be innocuous. “You are in violation of the Treaty of Columbus. You are exceeding the human no fly zone.”
“I don’t know what that is!” Bren yelled into the microphone. "We are just trying...," he tried, but the buzzing drowned him out.
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” the computerized voice crackled back at us. Something flashed on the side of their ship. Blue light so bright that it left after-images of the big teardrops filling my whole vision. All our systems crashed at once. The boards went dark and the sound of the engine faded to a memory ringing in my ears. Then the whistle of the fall, and the heat of the burn, started.
“We did it,” he smiled. I had to smile back because he’d never been happier.
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