Short - Base Flyer

"My heart stopped, and my lungs refused to let go of what I hoped wasn't my last breath."

Short - Base Flyer
Photo by Doug Kelley / Unsplash

Here's another techno thriller short. I didn't quite hit what I was going for with the character, but I nailed the flying. I used to fly a Cessna 152, and later switched to remote controlled gliders. I would love to be able to soar like a turkey vulture, but alas, I'm stuck on the ground.

I'd like to say the moment my feet left the weather-beaten concrete ledge that my heart soared and my soul forever escaped the bonds of Earth. The truth is that just as I crossed the no-going-back threshold, every possible doubt and fear overwhelmed my brain. My heart stopped, and my lungs refused to let go of what I hoped wasn't my last breath.

I knew my wings would work. All the tests had gone well. A few bugs, sure, but what project goes perfectly? But in that moment, logic failed me, and the twist in my gut channeled every concern that anyone had ever expressed. Amazing how a brain can process so much information in a single moment.

The wings' structure consisted primarily of a bio-organic matrix similar to bone. My bioengineers had grafted the base of each wing to my scapulas and artificially strengthened the muscles in that region.

Nerve-like electrodes ran throughout the wings and integrated directly into my spinal column. Over the past year, I had trained my brain to use these electrodes to control the tiny-yet-powerful servomotors embedded in the wing joints.

But all of that was old technology. The true innovations--my contribution that made it all possible--were the metallic feathers.

Each feather was a wafer-thin piece of titanium laced with golden arteries. Instead of carrying blood, these arteries carried electric current. When properly charged, the tips of the feathers would lift slightly from the oppositely charged surface of the wing, thus providing a multitude of control surfaces just like a real bird's wing. Other groups had designed wings in the past, but none of those had been efficient enough to achieve true human-powered flight. All of their wings had a fixed airfoil, which ultimately limited them: they could only be optimized for one mode of flight.

My electrostatic wings were revolutionary. The same biofeedback training that allowed me to open and close the wings with the servomotors also allowed me to reshape the surface of the wings on the fly. I couldn't consciously charge each individual feather, but after spending weeks in the wind tunnel, my brain knew what to do in order to increase or decrease lift, bank, and turn.

As cutting-edge as the technology was, the ability of my brain to learn to control it was even more incredible.

In that moment when I stepped off the ledge, I truly committed myself to the project. Grafted wings could be removed, but plummeting twenty stories to the ground could not be undone. That's why I experienced the rush of doubts.

I had tested every subsystem. I had trained my brain and my body to react, to fly without requiring conscious thought, the way a baby trains to walk without having to ponder every step. I had even used the wings to take short gliding trips.

I suppose I could have carried a parachute or taken my first flight from a lower height. I could have even launched over a giant net of some sort. But if I'd been the kind of guy who would have done that, I wouldn't have been the kind of guy who would have grafted artificial wings onto his back. No, I wanted to make my first flight as memorable as possible.

The video cameras were rolling, flashes threatened to blind me, and everyone cheered as I stepped up to the ledge. As I began my launch, the crowds went silent. The only sounds were the rush of wind and the frantic clicks of cameras.

And then I was committed. All doubts and fears became irrelevant as that moment passed.

I allowed myself to enjoy the first few seconds of free fall. Nothing compares to the rush of base jumping. The side of the building raced past me. It was close enough to touch, and that's what really gets the adrenaline going.

I screamed. This experience was a thousand times better than the scariest roller coaster. When I landed, my future would be set. It was the greatest feeling ever.

Twisting my body, I rotated my head down. I spread my wings and the servomotors responded fluidly. With a thought, I peeled away from the building in a shallow arc that brought me to a horizontal trajectory. I could almost feel a tingle between my shoulder blades as my brain sent electrical signals out to reshape the feathers, but I knew that that was psychosomatic.

Oh my God, I felt free! When I swooped up through a loop, I forgot all about electrostatic feathers and wing deformations. It wasn't about the patents. It was about soaring through the air like a bird.

The feeling made me ecstatic. I'd logged many hours in sailplanes, hang gliders, and paragliders, but this was true flight. Comparing those flights to this one was like comparing driving a boat to swimming. I was one with the air in a way that I never could be when attached to a contraption.

My plan had been to spiral down around the building a few times and then land next to a press pavilion. Now that I was up in the sky, I couldn't bring myself to go down. I closed my eyes and let my body sense the air as it flowed and swirled through the skyscrapers. Here an updraft. There a sink. And finally a swiftly flowing river that carried me away from my building like a leaf.

I opened my eyes to see Market Street far below. People trudged along, oblivious to the miracle flying above them. Constrained to the ground, they would not have believed their eyes if they did but gaze upwards.

Swooping up, I caught my breath in the moment of weightlessness at the top. Then I fell and rotated to the side in a perfect hammerhead. Time to give the pedestrians a show.

My body naturally found its best glide speed as I made my way up Market Street. As I got in range of the press pavilion, I dove for the ground to pick up speed. The pedestrians scattered. They had no idea what passed just overhead, but it scared them. The cameras flashed all around the pavilion, and news reporters struggled to keep me in frame. I performed a barrel roll as I approached and then an Immelmann right over the stage. At the top of the turn, I flared my wings and drifted down like a parachutist to land in the center of the crowd.

An angel descending from Heaven.

It was the single most perfect moment in my life. I had overcome all obstacles to become the first human to truly fly.

I'd like to say the moment my feet touched the ground that my heart soared and my soul forever escaped the bonds of Earth. The truth is that I never flew again. The electrodes caused irreparable nerve damage. Seventeen surgeries over five years failed to reverse the paralysis.

But no matter what else happened, I had taken a chance and lived my dream. Nothing could take that away. All I had to do was close my eyes to relive that wondrous flight. So in a way, my soul did forever escape the bonds of Earth.

Todd Edwards © . All rights reserved.