story 3 : free fall

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“Free Fall” was first published in Outlook Springs, Volume 1, Spring 2016. Photo: aerial night view of Baghdad. Credit: Robert Langdon.

~

Battista flew in a moonless sky.

At 10:14pm Baghdad time, her plane bucked from enemy fire, her seat was ejected, and she hurtled up so fast that the skin on her cheeks was sucked down, making red deltas of her eye sockets. Then the air slowed. Her cheeks warmed. She was cresting, reaching her maximum height, like a ball in a high school physics problem.

Her parachute should have deployed. It didn’t.

She began to drop. Her axis listed sideways. She flung out her arms. As she tumbled, the view of the city came around and around again in flashes. A grid of golden grains. But she was headed straight for a swatch of blackness, where there were no lights, no contours, nothing.

As Battista fell towards it, she thought, I bet there isn’t even anything there.

She was right.

She plunged through and the grid inverted, as if she’d plunged into a pond and was now looking at the surface above. She blinked, but the view had changed, now, and couldn’t be seen any other way. She continued to fall. She watched the huge city of Baghdad contract into a golden galaxy.

~

“I want to get out of here,” said Battista, drunk.

“Get yourself pregnant. Or dead,” said Hanlon.

“I think we’re as far from home as it’s physically possible to be.”

“Really? What’s on the other side of Baghdad?”

“I bet it’s Hawaii.”

“Close enough.”

~

Now Baghdad was a single bloom of light, connected by threads to other blooms of light. Some were gold, and some were bright blue—Tel Aviv, she guessed, and Dubai. Their contraction was the only way she knew that she was in motion.

She felt about her waist and located her belt buckles. After a few snaps and clicks, the straps fell away. She gave the chair a shove with her foot, and it revolved away and was lost. The helmet was next. She unbuckled the chinstrap and pushed it away with one finger. It, too, floated into the darkness.

~

Hanlon drew a circle—quite well, Battista thought, for how many beers she’d had—and then an oval spanning the circle. The upper half was dashed and the lower half was solid, to indicate a sphere. Then she drew an arrow straight down, bisecting it.

“How long would it take? To fall through the earth?”

“You mean, if it were hollow?”

“Yeah.”

“What is the earth filled with? Air?”

“No, peanut butter.”

“Mmmm, peanut butter. When’s your next care package coming?”

“No, air. At ground-level psi.”

“A gal can dream.”

They did the calculations, on the actual back of an envelope.

“After reaching terminal velocity…about twenty-three hours.”

“Almost a day.”

“A whole day. Damn. About as long as it’d take to get home by regular old plane.”

“Tough landing, though.”

~

Now Battista understood that matter was infinitely suggestible, and always had been.

She folded over into a dive. She fell that way for awhile. An eternal dive, never reaching the pool.

Then she turned over onto her back again. The lights on the surface of the earth had grown more faint, but the extent of them was greater now; nets of lights draped over the curvature of space, like the lattice of veins on a pregnant belly. She felt peaceful. She might as well have been resting on a bed of black silk. She crossed her arms behind her head. The air made a pillow.

She closed her eyes and slept, for the first time in weeks.

~

“It wouldn’t really be a landing. It’d be more of a…surfacing.”

“On the other side of the planet?”

“Yeah. In Hawaii.”

“Tough surfacing, then.”

“Or maybe you’d just keep falling.”

“Through the whole universe forever and ever—”

“We’re mostly space.”

“—amen.”

~

Battista dreamed of Hawaii. She’d been there once, on leave.

She stayed at a resort on the northern coast of Kauai, at a special military rate. She was alone. She liked taking vacations alone.

She also liked the bartender at her resort. He called himself Gauri. He was of Maori-Mexican-Japanese ancestry—a child of crossroads, as she herself was; though she didn’t know where her roads had come from or where they led to, only that they had crossed, once, when she was conceived.

After he got off work, they went down to the beach and drank mai tais. She told him she was a Navy pilot. He told her he was a pacifist. She said, “That’s okay.” And then when she was on top of him, she thought, Maybe I’ll become a pacifist. After they were done, they had a little nap on the sand, the sweetest sleep Battista had ever known.

That is what she dreamed of: sleeping.

~

They clinked their bottles and took drinks.

Then Hanlon said, “We on tomorrow night?”

“Yep.”

“Cuadros said we hit a madrasa last night.”

“Surprise surprise.” Battista peered at the label on her bottle.

Hanlon shrugged. “We hit what Intelligence tells us to hit. I sleep fine at night.”

Battista laughed. “Yeah.”

~

Battista awoke to faint light. The cities of the earth were so far away they were stars, now, swirled across the surface of a bubble.

Her eyes, now sensitized to the darkness, could also see a faint glow beneath her. She turned over to look down. Very far away there was a point of light. She felt excited. She thought it might be the core at the center of the earth, that glowing pulsing ball in every cross-section of the Earth in every science textbook ever made. She was falling towards it. Not rapidly, but gently. An easy approach. A soft landing.

She reached her arms forward so that it seemed she held the core between her hands. As it got bigger, she spread her hands, to accommodate its growth.

~

Battista continued. “Madrasas, hospitals, weddings, bat mitzvahs—or whatever it is Muslims do—whatever. I don’t care anymore.”

“Nor I, comrade.”

Battista lost a handle on her bottle and it clonked to the table, rolled over, fell and shattered on the floor.

“Ah, shit.” She got up and tried to sweep the shards into a pile with her foot.

“Let it go,” said Hanlon. “That’s what the staff is for.”

“You’re a cunt sometimes.” Battista bent over to pick up the pieces with her bare hands.

“You’re the one who dropped the bomb on the madrasa.”

Battista sliced her finger on a shard of glass. “Fuck me,” she muttered.

“What was that, sweetheart?”

Battista showed her the bleeding finger.

“Ah, shit. Want me to get a towel?”

“No, it’s alright.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s fine.”

“You’re gushing. Don’t you feel it?”

Battista stared at her finger. “Nah.”

~

The core was huge now. Battista couldn’t spread her arms wide enough to accommodate it. So she just folded into a dive and let herself fall, down toward the core, as if toward the calm of a pool at rest.

~

Hanlon got a towel for Battista anyway, and Battista wrapped it around her finger to stop the bleeding.

“Better go to Medical for that,” she said.

Battista shrugged. “I’ll go in the morning. After I sleep.”

“You’re actually sleeping now?”

Battista smiled, bitter. “After I pretend to sleep.”

“You need to go to Medical for that too.”

“What are you, my mother?”

“No, just your copilot.”

Battista put her feet on the table and leaned back in her chair. “Then shut up.”

Hanlon laughed.

~

Battista began to see features on the core. It wasn’t just a sphere. It had a topography. There were oceans and mountains and clouds. She was still falling terribly fast, but she didn’t feel afraid. She was headed right where she needed to be. She saw the undulant Persian Gulf, the shining veins of the Tigris and Euphrates, and the grid of golden lights that was Baghdad. She saw the cluster of buildings in the Green Zone, the common lounge in her barracks with the throbbing neon lights. Just a short stop on her way home.

She landed in a chair across from her copilot, and looked up from her beer.

“And what do you think is in the center?”

“Of what.”

Hanlon waved her beer bottle up and around, looking at the room. “The hollow earth, bitch. The one we just established.”

“Eh. More hollowness.”

“And you just keep falling.”

“Yes. Through to Hawaii.”

“But how do you brake on the other side? How do you say, ‘Here-wait-I’m-home-I-need-to-stop-here’?”

Battista let her head hang back over the top of her chair, and closed her eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe you have to want it enough.”

“But you can’t want it too much. Otherwise you’ll plummet through the crust and drift out into space forever.”

“That would suck.”

Hanlon looked away.

~

Battista dropped through the floor.

A film reel of rooms, floors and frames soon turned to darkness, and she was falling again through empty space.

She curled into a cannonball, holding herself and looking up. She felt all right. She was still falling, that’s all. Clearly she just hadn’t reached Hawaii yet.

She began to hear a whistling sound, which then split into many whistles, soft hurtling notes. She couldn’t see anything in the darkness. But she could feel the presence of others around her. Then she began to see them—little pixels materializing in the darkness, suspended points of light, all around her. They were getting closer. She was in a shell of people falling, one shell in a thousand shells contracting, in an endless succession of contracting spheres.

A brighter planet rushed up to receive them.

~

“I had a dream about Baghdad,” said Hanlon. “It was a new Baghdad.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, it wasn’t spice and shit and dust like the one we know. All the buildings were made of mica, except, like, gold-colored mica. So the whole city glittered. And the streets went over the city—like, all the walkways to get from one place to another were across the tops of buildings, and if you ever wanted to go into a store or a butcher shop or someone’s home, you would have to descend a set of stairs to get underneath.”

“So the city was hollow.”

“Yeah, sort of.”

~

Battista alighted on the roof of a mosque in Baghdad. She knew where she was. She could take this path left to go to the carpet bazaar, or she could take the path right to go to the river. She went right.

She walked along the sparkling ramparts. Those who passed her had bright faces—they were the ones who had fallen with her, the meteor-people, now remembering where and who they were. They carried parcels of meat. They smelled of sandalwood. They all had dinners to attend and guests to prepare for. They smiled at her, kohl-lined eyes crinkling, and she smiled back.

As she approached the river she saw her son come running to her, calling Mama, Mama. Gauri was right behind him, shielding his eyes from the sun. He kissed her cheek and said to her: Battista, come home.

Battista went home with him.

They had a dinner of lamb, with guests.

They had a daughter and two more sons.

She worked as a mechanic and he taught martial arts.

They watched their children grow and marry.

They retired to Hawaii, where the sea was more blue than Battista believed possible, blue like a Clorox cocktail.

She said aloud, “This, too, is mostly space.”

She fell through the sand, and on again into the universe.

 

~

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