Today I was pleased to learn two chapters of my novel, the Epilogue and Chapter 21, took first and third place respectively in the 2015 Newport Cultural Center Short Story Contest. The submissions were judged by National Writing Fellows. Last year my story ‘Catch and Release’ was selected as third place so this year’s submissions were definitely an improvement! Below is the short story version (I changed it somewhat from the novel version to fit the format and guidelines of the contest) of the third place selection. Chapter 21 of my novel, ‘Falling Tears’ has yet to receive a definitive title. Thoughts so far are ‘Another Flight’, ‘The Third Tree of Spring’, ‘Flight’ or what was the short story title, ‘Escaping the Program’. Below is the text of the short story, a little teaser for the novel. Next I’ll post the first place short story (the novel’s Epilogue).
Escaping the Program
Robert Lancer was the founder and CEO of Global Systems, the most powerful corporation on Earth.
Top officials within the military had first approached Lancer in the early nineties when they’d begun to recognize the looming threats of a changing climate. Global energy needs had been skyrocketing for decades and projections showed that trend would only intensify. As the world continued to heat up it was recognized that, along with access to dwindling global energy resources, drinkable water was going to push more and more people into ever tighter radii. The United States, according to analysts at the USGS, NOAA, NASA, the Pentagon and private think tanks, was going to become a destination for what they began calling ‘climate refugees’. Was there a way, they had wanted to know, for the only organization big enough to handle such a task, the military, to ensure the safety of the current economic system within the framework of the current political system?
Lancer had told Larry that his answer had been instantaneous. No. Not unless certain aspects within the system were fluid enough to accept the necessary changes. That meant, namely, the constitutional limitations placed on the government with respect to things like population control and domestic deployment of the armed forces. The conversation had basically dwindled away but not before the seeds had been planted in Lancer’s brain. The military had given him a picture of the future, a picture that he had spent the next two decades fleshing out secretly by diversifying the interests of his company and then spreading the program unnoticeably across the entire Global Systems infrastructure. What had originally been an extremely profitable satellite systems company had morphed into what Larry knew. Well, what Larry had actually only partially known, until recently. Global Systems was now into everything. Not only aircraft and weapons design, which were the most well-known aspects of the company but everything. Lancer had spread G.S. arteries throughout the global security structure with powerful contacts and lucrative contracts in nearly every government around the globe. G.S. manufactured chemicals for everything from tear gas to household cleaners. The company had subsidiaries working on biotechnology with breakthroughs in agriculture and medical intervention. They designed, manufactured and sold everything from body armor to deodorant, heart valves to cereals. They manufactured air conditioning systems for residential and industrial use. The company built everything from supermarkets to supertankers.
Lancer had explained to the military brass in the nineties there was no way to save America’s way of life without certain changes to the system. The changes Lancer had in mind had nothing to do with the economic system or the political system per se but rather the limitations under which they labored. Change what was legal.
Larry found himself admiring this man. Robert Lancer had recognized that things were going to get ugly. The train wasn’t going to stay on the tracks because of the laws of physics. Lancer’s plan had been to ignore the laws of physics and design a population control system that would keep certain aspects of the train’s motion going with a firm belief that, when the time came the laws of physics would have to be rewritten to accommodate him.
After the nightmare scenarios Lancer had taken him through, after the holographic presentation of probable futures that had been laid before him in terrifying detail, Larry couldn’t help feel there was no other way.
So he knew how Sam Ridge felt when, he staggered through the cockpit door and tripped into the chair next to Walker. He sat staring forward, seeing neither the controls nor the brilliant sky filling the windshield. He clutched the glasses in his hand and tried to breathe normally.
“Is it real,” he said without turning to look at Walker. “Can they do this?”
Walker had asked himself the same questions one month ago when Lancer had let him watch the hologram. He nodded.
“Yes.” It was a simple answer to an incredibly terrifying question. “They are doing it all the time, all around us. People have no idea what they’re being subjected to.” He turned to look at Sam who saw him from the corner of his eye but couldn’t bring himself to look back. “The world is falling apart Ridge. The droughts and famines, the floods and fires…the wars we’ve seen are just the beginning. It’s going to get so much worse. Lancer’s right about that. The train can’t keep going unless we build new tracks.” He paused for a moment and Sam looked over to see him shake his head slightly, seeming to look inward.
“Why do you people always start from the supposition the train has to keep going?” Walker turned abruptly to look at him.
“Everything you’re describing was caused by us,” Sam answered, “Who says the train has to keep going? The best thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is stop digging, not find a different type of shovel.” Sam looked down at the digital recording in his hand, the one he was supposed to help Larry Walker expose, “especially a psychotic shovel.”
“What do you mean? End civilization? That’s just the problem Ridge; nobody’s going to vote for that. Humans have a very strong instinct toward self preservation. You’re suggesting mass suicide…or mass murder. It’s not a realistic solution.”
“Realistic?” Sam pointed back through the plane. “You think that, what you just showed me, is realistic? Massive population control? Drugging entire segments of society against their will, worse without them even knowing or deciding what their will is? Slipping chemicals into things they use every day, switching on and off certain parts of the brain? Dousing entire cities? This isn’t a new train Walker; it’s the madness of tyranny.”
Walker looked at him contemplatively. “I’m not trying to argue in favor of Lancer’s plan. But what’s the alternative? Something has to be done, otherwise there is going to be lots and lots of death and destruction.”
Sam stared at him, shaking his head. Walker was obviously very smart. He claimed to have designed this plane, knew how to fly it, knew about the technologies Lancer was using on the population, but how smart could he be if this is how his mind worked?
“Why do you people always try to control everything?”
“Look around Walker. The Earth is telling us something and it isn’t that we need to drug everyone to keep them calm while everything goes to shit around us. She’s telling us we fucked up, big time. And when you mess up something like this, there are consequences. The reason we’re in this mess in the first place is because people like Lancer are always the ones making the decisions. The government backs them without question. They have all the money and power. But they aren’t smart enough to notice that in the long run none of their decisions pan out…not even for them. There is going to be massive death and destruction, whether you do this,” he thrust the USB drive in the air, “or not. The only solution is to stop digging and start banding together as communities.”
“People like Lancer and their pawns in the government don’t want that because whenever people get together they start to realize the raw deal we’ve been handed and that we don’t need you people. For the last fifty years you’ve thrown up roadblocks to any meaningful change that would have helped stem this tide claiming it was too difficult or too expensive. But how much money has been spent on what I just saw? They record us and watch everything we do. How much does it cost to keep tabs on everyone? What if that money had gone into creating a society that understood its place in the circle of life?”
Walker’s cut in. “The circle of life?”
Sam snorted and shook his head disgustedly. “Forget it Walker.” He looked around at the buttons and levers and dials, then out through the plane’s windows. “Where are we going?” Larry didn’t answer so he turned back.
“Walker? Where are we going?”
Walker shook his head. “Nowhere.”
“What?” Sam felt a flare of panic. Had this all been some elaborate ruse? Had he been foolish to trust Walker to get him out of the cell Lancer had kept him in?
“There’s nowhere we can go,” he turned to look at Sam. “Getting on the plane was the only way to get away from them. But…we can’t get away from them.” He looked down at the controls and pointed at a small dial. “GPS. We’ve got enough fuel to get to Europe or Central America but they can track us anywhere.”
“Can’t you dismantle it? You said you designed this plane! You must know how to…”
“I could, but I’m not in the habit of taking apart pieces of planes in which I’m flying,” Walker said, looking up from the dial. “But it doesn’t matter. Didn’t you hear what I said before Ridge? Nobody can go anywhere without them knowing! You think Lancer’s just going to be ok with your escape and my betrayal of the company? By now this plane has been blacklisted from every runway on the planet. Even without the GPS they would be notified the instant we tried to land and by the time we jumped out of the plane there would be a small army waiting.”
Sam looked out the window. It made sense. But the logic didn’t make it easier to digest. He began to feel the familiar, horrible feeling in his stomach. “What do we do then?”
Walker was silent for a minute. “Crash.”
“What?” Sam leaned toward the other man, straining to be sure he heard whatever Walker said next. It had sounded like he’d said ‘crash’ but that was absurd. Walker turned toward him.
“We crash.” Sam could feel the confusion and horror taking over his face.
“We crash? For Christ sake Walker, if that’s the plan we should have just run into the woods. Unless you built this thing to be invincible or dive under water.”
Walker turned and looked blankly at him.
“What? You…you can’t seriously…”
“No. Not invincible. But you don’t need to be on a plane to make it crash.”
“What? We’re not going to be on…? But you said we can’t land. How are we…?” Sam’s eyes widened and he sat back in his seat, pushing himself away from Walker.
Walker looked over at him and shook his head. “Don’t worry Mr. Ridge we won’t be jumping out of the plane.” He reached down and tapped a screen before standing up. “Come with me.”
Sam followed him back to the cabin where he’d just watched the hologram. He had a hard time looking at the hologram projector. Walker stopped next to one of the chairs and turned back to Sam.
“This is an EFU, encapsulated flight unit. It will see you safely to the ground in an emergency. Once we get to a suitable location you will strap into it and I’ll push you out of the plane. Then you’ll…”
“Push me out of the plane? Are you fucking kidding?”
“No. This is your only chance so shut up.” He reached down and pushed on the armrest nearest him as though testing it for comfort. When he took his hand away the cushion popped off and fell to the floor. Beneath was a series of controls and a joystick. It looked oddly similar to a video game controller. “Pay attention,” Walker looked up and barked at him. “This button will activate the encapsulation unit. Once you’re strapped in I’ll get you over to the door and you’re going to press it as soon as you clear the plane. You will be completely entombed in a clear, impenetrable, spherical, one man aerial unit. This button will turn on the thrusters and propel you forward. This button will kill the thrusters. This,” he grabbed the joystick and yanked it around, “will allow you to control your direction. When you get close to the ground you need to kill the thrusters and pull this trigger. It will start the vertical condenser. Once you’ve landed you punch this button,” he leaned down and pointed to a large blue disk on the side of the armrest, “to open the pod and escape.”
Sam stared at the control in horror. Eventually his eyes drifted up to meet Walker’s. The man was standing there calmly telling him he needed to be pushed out of a plane and trust that a chair was going to turn into a space ship and get him safely onto the ground. He had to trust that this man, who had, until a couple hours ago been helping hold him as a prisoner, wasn’t simply strapping him into a regular, run-of-the-mill airplane seat and pushing him out into the sky.
“Are you fucking kidding,” he repeated?
Walker sighed exasperatedly and his face took on an angry set. “God damn it Ridge, this is the only solution there is! They’ll find us no matter where we fly! They know exactly where we are right now! I invented this chair and I’m telling you it will get you to the ground.” He turned and looked down at the chair. “It’s meant to be used in an emergency very different from this one. That means it has its own GPS locator so if it’s ever used it can be found and the person recovered. Once you get on the ground you need to get out and start running.” He looked up at Sam.
“What about you?” Sam looked around. “Do the other chairs turn into planes too?” Walker hesitated and lowered his eyes just for a second.
“I’ll have one too. But…but I will have to get it out of the plane and activate it myself after setting us on a crash course. My pod will exit the plane maybe as many as fifty miles after yours. The escape pods aren’t designed to be flown around indefinitely or steered toward things. They’ll get you to the ground…that’s it. So I can’t come and find you.” He paused and looked directly into Sam’s eyes and spoke as though demanding a promise. “Once you’re on the ground…run.” He held Sam’s eyes until he nodded.
“Alright. But where?”
“We’ll be entering the airspace over northern Maine in,” Walker studied his watch and started toward the cockpit, “five minutes.”
“What,” Sam exclaimed? “That’s impossible!”
Walker looked back at him. “You should know better than that by now. Strap yourself in. I’ll take care of the rest.” He turned to go.
“Why are you helping me?”
After a moment Walker looked at the hologram table, then turned and looked into Sam’s eyes. “Because even if Lancer’s program works and keeps the world running and keeps everyone from dying, I won’t be able to live with myself.”