05 November 2010

"Up in the Air"

By Curtis C. Chen

Stratton's job is to fly, chasing a thin stripe of daylight across the planet. He was born in the air, and God willing, he'll die without ever setting foot on dirt. He doesn't question these circumstances. He doesn't wonder about the world below. Stratton just flies.

His partner's name is Victoria. They met for the first time three days ago, when the air tanker refueled Stratton's bomber and a devotion crew removed the body of his previous co-pilot, Marcus.

The ceremony was dignified and short. Stratton and Victoria stood side by side watched Marcus' body fall through the open bomb bay and disappear into the clouds below.

"How did he die?" Victoria asked.

"Unknown," Stratton replied.

Victoria frowned. "That's a little worrisome, isn't it?"

Stratton shrugged. He didn't understand why Marcus had suddenly started vomiting blood and then stopped breathing. It wasn't important exactly what had killed Marcus. It was important for Stratton to get back to work. Back to flying.

Now, Victoria completes her maintenance checklist and watches Stratton from the right-hand seat as he adjusts the flight controls for some approaching weather.

"Must get pretty boring up here," she says.

"In the cockpit?" Stratton asks, confused.

"In the sky," Victoria says.

Stratton struggles to understand what she might mean. He can't imagine anything boring about living above the clouds, watching a perpetual sunset, seeing stars twinkling on the edge of night. He can't imagine a better life than the one he has.

Victoria fills the silence. "I grew up in Rookly," she says. Stratton recognizes the name of the city from the bomber's land maps. "Never thought much about the sky until I enlisted. I mean, we'd see the flights overhead, but it didn't really affect our everyday lives."

"Our work is important," Stratton says.

"Oh, I know that," Victoria says. "But it's just so far removed from everything, you know? That's why I joined up. I wanted to see the world from a different perspective." She's staring at Stratton. He can see her out of the corner of his eye. "What do you think? How does this compare to life on the ground?"

"Never been on the ground," Stratton says.

"You're kidding," Victoria says. "Come on! You must have been born on land, right?"

Stratton shakes his head. "My parents were Sky Corps. They lived on the Patrick Hayden."

"The heli-carrier?" Victoria is momentarily speechless. Then she reaches across the center console and punches Stratton in the arm. "No way! You're messing with me!"

Stratton feels his face growing hot. He hates this woman, who talks too much and asks too many questions and touches him without asking permission. He wants her to go away. He wonders if what killed Marcus in that seat will kill her soon. Stratton can only hope.

"Yes," he says, "I'm messing with you."

Victoria laughs. "You're all right, Strat."

Stratton has nothing to say. He stares straight ahead, out at the sky, and watches the sunset for as long as he can.


Photo: Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, May, 2009


LC said...

I love this story (combined with the photo). It's especially impactful because it's almost entirely from the point of view of Stratton (even though it's technically third-person omniscient). IMHO, a few things though that I think either slipped out of character or were a bit too much:
* "He doesn't question these circumstances." Someone that loves their life and knows no other doesn't even know enough to consider questioning circumstances. The opener flows better without this.
* "Our work is important" seems like it could be replaced with something else that reflects everything else about Stratton -- it's his love of flying, not duty that keeps him up there until this line.

My favorite part bar none though is when Stratton has the negative reaction to Victoria. That's pure "show not tell." Stratton's reaction is so astoundingly REAL at that point.

And a beautiful ending, where Stratton does what he needs to to end the conversation. And leaves us wondering where this relationship will lead with such a start.

CKL said...

Thanks LC! I do have thoughts on how to make a longer story out of this.

Anonymous said...

I loved this one. The first paragraph does a great job of establishing Stratton's character. You nailed his character, and Victoria's is strong too. When I finished reading this, I felt like I wanted to read more about the both of them.

Favorite lines/sections: chasing a thin stripe of daylight, stars twinkling on the edge of night, and wonders if what killed Marcus will kill her soon.