Alek was determined to fly, but his chance rested on an unexpected choice.
In the darkness, Alek’s eyes jolted open at the sound of his door unlocking. His muscles tensed- ready to react, but he made no motion as he watched three men enter his dorm room. They were silhouetted in the dim hallway light and Alek did not recognize their shape or gait. From the glint of shoulder insignias he could see they were wearing officer’s uniforms.
“Please get up, Mr. Lampson,” said the middle office calmly and quietly.
As he swung his legs to the floor, panic drifted into Alek’s mind, riding on a memory frequently recalled: his brother James sitting in their bedroom, bent over, angry. “Three officers came into my room and told me to pack up.” James had recounted bitterly. After four years pursing his life’s ambition, he had washed out of Flight School. Alek felt his brother’s devastation through their shared dream. From the moment James and Alek saw their first Flyer soaring through the cityscape, they became boys possessed. All their play, study, and effort was bent on only one goal, to become one of Them. Flyers were the most revered members of the race- utterly dependable and capable champions of peace and justice. But more than that, what entranced the brothers was the Flyer’s singular ability to soar with only the aid a skin-fitting suit. Their famous gear, worn under regular clothing, allowed them to mix among the commoners and then leap out of a crowd in a moment of need, rushing to the aid of the distressed. Now, that opportunity was denied forever to James; for no one is ever allowed to reapply to Flight School. James did not recover from the disappointment and soon left to travel down darker paths, propelled by his festering anger and doubt.
The first officer spoke again, jolting Alek out of his recollection. “Mr. Lampson, you are required at another location. Come with us.”
Alek jerked backed to attention, and his panic surged again. Aren’t you going to ask me to pack? He thought. The light was on now and he could see that these men were trainers, from another dorm perhaps. He began to reach for his fatigues, but the first trainer said, “You won’t be needing those or any other belongings, Mr. Lampson. Come as you are.”
Responding to the order, Alek pushed the panic down and stood at attention in his gray boxers and t-shirt. He glanced at his clock: 1:00 a.m. The first trainer turned and walked out the door followed by Alek and then the other two. Alek proceeded with the careful vigilance of a trainee expecting the unexpected.
They walked in single file down the length of the dorm access hallway. Alek observed the name plaques of friends and comrades. Wilson, LeBaron, Ravi, Zavragin, and others. Some of them were gone already, strangely disappeared with no goodbye, no explanation. The ones that remained were close friends. Would he ever see them again?
Presently, they emerged into the cool darkness of the early morning. The compound was unlit and nobody else could be seen. A few meters away was a hovering transport which they entered. After taking his seat in the windowless vehicle, Alek looked at the expressionless faces of the men, waiting for more information. Finally he said, “Ok, are you going to tell me what is going on, or at least who you are?”
The first trainer, apparently the only one authorized to speak, answered, “We are not at liberty to give our identities. You are here because you are to discontinue training at the Flight School.”
Alek’s heart sank at these words, “What do you mean? Am I washing out? I thought I was doing well!”
“We do not know your training status or scores. We have only been given your name. I will explain more when we arrive at our destination. Until then, try to relax and prepare your mind.”
Prepare your mind. That was the language of testing- they were clearly going to put him up against something. Alek relaxed somewhat, distracted by the thought of a trial. He had never heard of a situation like this, but then again the whole process of training was a bit of a mystery since the school was closed to outsiders and the Flyers themselves were extremely tight-lipped about it. Alek looked at his flimsy underclothes and then at three wide scars on his naked leg. Some training exercises were deliberately brutal. He held off the remembered fear by pulling his mind into the present, focusing on the meditation they taught him on his first day of Flight School. Breathe in. Breathe out. Your fear is water flowing away, leaving just you.
After some time, Alek felt the transport set down. He glanced at his watch and noticed nearly an hour had passed. We could be anywhere.
The first trainer sat up and motioned for Alek to follow. Alek stepped out of the transport into darkness. After Alek’s eyes adjusted to the night, he could see the two of them were standing a few meters away from a great precipice, probably five hundred meters high. Behind him, the ground gently sloped away around foothills covered with desert vegetation. Alek noticed that the other two trainers had also exited the transport and stood a few meters away.
The first trainer broke the silence. “All right Mr. Lampson. Now is the time for you to ask your questions.”
His many questions rose in his mind, demanding answers, but Alek took his time and picked one carefully. “What is the nature of this test?”
“We are here to find out if you are a Flyer,” said the trainer, whose expression and voice were still inscrutable. He stared directly at Alek without any hint of searching or any feeling of contest. Alek could see that this trainer was clearly not a judge, just an observer.
Alek’s eyes narrowed. “How do we find out if I am a Flyer?” Then a new thought came, “And how can such a question be asked if I’ve only been in training for two years?”
The trainer replied, turning toward the expanse in front of them. “To answer your first question…“ His voice trailed off, calling attention to the expanse before them. The trainer scanned the horizon for a few moments, then looked sidelong at Alek.
Taking the cue, Alek scanned the horizon himself and soon noticed the tell-tale shimmer of a cloaked transport about two hundred meters out and fifty meters above the cliff edge. Alek squinted at it to be sure of what he was seeing, then looked back at the trainer. “Am I supposed to get on that thing?”
“Very good, Mr. Lampson.”, replied the trainer, though without even the slightest hint of approval.
Alek could see they clearly expected him to fly. But curiously, actual flying was something they hadn’t covered in Flight School. There had been plenty of simulation, but nobody left the ground. That had been something of a joke between him and his friends; but now… Alek felt fear and doubt rising again. Everything he wanted was in jeopardy because of some obscure, impossible test. “I don’t have a flight suit.” He said with some anxiety.
The trainer allowed himself a tiny morsel of expression. Was it amusement? “Mr. Lampson,” retorted the trainer, “you are already wearing your flight suit.”
Alek’s mind was jarred by this unexpected announcement. “But…”, was all he could say as he looked down at his under clothes.
The trainer answered, anticipating Alek’s new question: “You drank your flight suit on the first day of training.” He paused to let Alek absorb this new information, then gestured at the horizon. “Your task is to use the suit you already have to bring yourself to that transport.”
A tiny spark of hope now awoke inside Alek. The fact that he was his own flight suit, this was beyond his imagination. He could feel the revelation upending his sense of what was real. He turned his hands over to examine them, wondering how the “suit” might work. The simulators suggested an actual physical suit, but this was different. “How do I operate it?”
“The suit is controlled by thought. Thanks to the simulators, you already have a certain concept of what it is to fly and to move through space. Your suit is keyed to that thought signature. Draw upon these thoughts, let them fill your awareness, and the flying will come as naturally as walking.” Another hint of emotion betrayed itself in the trainer’s tone. A remembered pleasure?
Alek took a few steps into the open area between the landed transport and the cliff. The other trainers stepped back to give him room. Alek cleared his mind and looked up at the transport in the air. He concentrated, letting the feelings and visualizations of simulated flying fill his thoughts. He willed himself skyward, clearly picturing his body leaping from the ground.
Disappointed, but oddly not deterred, Alek tried again, taking care to concentrate with exactness as he followed the simulator protocols to ascend and move toward the transport.
Alek shifted his thoughts laterally, summoning actual experiences of flying on transports, remembrances of short flights taken accidentally off of swings & bicycles, and even the exhilarating memories from his many nighttime “Flyer” dreams.
His hope fading, Alek again took a deep breath to ground himself. Think! He sifted the possibilities then arrived at a conclusion. He turned to the trainer and said, “It’s not engaged yet, is it?”
The trainer replied, flat, monotone, “No. The suit is programmed to enable flight capabilities only when two conditions are met. The first condition is that the suit must detect a significant period of weightlessness.”
Alek’s eyes widened in fear. “Do I have to jump off that cliff?”
“Yes. … if you want to activate your suit.”
Alek walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down. It had a sheer face that terminated into an uncertainty of deep shadows. He stood there for a moment, grappling with his fear, until another question tugged at him. “What is the second condition?”
“The second condition is that your trainers have decided you performed sufficiently well in your initial training. This evaluation is already programmed into your suit.”
“… And you don’t know my results.”
“No. As I said, we have only been given your name.”
“So what you are saying is… I may have already passed, but I won’t know until I jump.”
“Technically, you don’t pass until after you jump. But you have the right idea.”
Alek could feel the weight of doubt returning. “But I have had so little training. How could I possibly be evaluated as a Flyer?”
The first trainer walked toward Alek. “The nature of the suit renders technical training mostly meaningless. With a fully operative suit, we can train you to do virtually anything in a very short amount of time.”
Alek could sense gravity from the trainer’s tone, so he looked at him, giving him his full attention.
“Mr. Lampson, What concerns us at this point, the reason we are here, is the fact that we are giving a powerful and easily abused technology to a human being.”
Alek had no trouble seeing what the trainer meant. He had thought many times about what a person could do with such a suit and wondered why it was that he had never heard of anyone doing these terrible and dastardly things he conjured in his mind. He gave a little nod to the trainer.
The trainer continued, “Who is Alek Lampson? What kind of person is he? With a partially active suit, your trainers have been able to monitor you more thoroughly than you could guess.”
Alek responded in surprise. “What?”
“Your trainers already know what kind of person you are. We have observed tens of thousands of people this way. We are very good at it and we have never been wrong.”
“If my trainers already know the answer, then why not tell me?”
The trainer stepped back to let Alek to think for a minute, then interrupted, “This is a decision you must make alone. Now that you know the nature of the test, I cannot be here to influence you in any way. My fellow trainers and I will take the transport to the bottom of the hill behind us. If you choose not to jump, then simply follow the path and you will eventually reach the transport.
The trainer paused and Alek emerged from his sea of thought for another question. “If I jump, but my trainers didn’t think I’m a Flyer?”
“Then your death will be reported as a training accident. Your belongings and a generous remuneration will be given to your family.”
“And if I decide not to jump?”
“A memory agent was administered to you last night. The antidote is on the transport above you over there. If you choose not to jump, you will remember nothing of this day and tomorrow morning you will be excused from Flight School, receiving your belongings and a generous severance.” Reaching into his pocket, the trainer pulled out a small device. He pressed a button and there was an audible beep. “One last thing: You have five minutes to make your decision. After five minutes, the suit will deactivate permanently. Goodbye Mr. Lampson… and good luck.”
The trainer gave a crisp salute, then returned with his companions to their transport which glided away, leaving Alek completely alone at the edge of the precipice. Alek walked back to where the transport had been and looked down the path leading to the bottom of the hill. Then he looked back at the transport on the horizon, hardly visible at all.
Every event of the last two years ran through his head. Seemingly small things now had the most incredible significance- a conversation at lunch, a reaction to an offense, an act of kindness … and cruelty. The revelations of the last few minutes connected rapidly to dozens of memories until he felt nearly overwhelmed by the surge of thought. “Who am I?” Alek finally asked himself out loud.
A new thought arrived quietly and forcefully in Alek’s mind, dispersing the fear and confusion. He lifted himself up. Tears flowed down his face in great rivers and he wept to the sky. He looked down the path and observed the gentle declines, imagining the safety of the transport there at the end- an easy walk away. With a resolute voice he said, “Never.”
Alek turned away from the hill and faced the chasm just long enough to spot the hovering transport. A new word, unvoiced, burned in his mind. Always.
His heart beating wildly, Alek began to sprint, putting maximum force into every stride, straining with every muscle, every feeling reaching upward, until at last he crossed the edge of the precipice, sailing out, legs and arms wheeling into the darkness.