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A Theory of Flight

A story from Better Worlds, our science fiction project about hope

Everyone in the neighborhood said Carlinda Winstead had lost her mind.

At least, that was the word on the street, and not just anyone could get the rumor mill grinding and churning in the same direction all at once. From the ladies in the beauty shop to the guys holding down the sidewalk in front of the Quik Mart, Carlinda’s name was on everybody’s lips. Story was, she’d gone crazy after going to that fancy school on Mars. Story was, she’d come back to the old neighborhood to plot her revenge after some tech bro fired her from her job of designing rockets for rich folks.

Hadn’t folks seen her around Oak Hill buying sheet metal and acetylene torches? Even a bit of that kind of fancy fiberglass they used on rockets? Special order it, she did. Carlinda was a woman scorned and a mad scientist all in the same breath. No one could agree on who she was plotting against, but you could tell it was going to be bad. 

It was going to be trouble.

But the thing was, hadn’t Carlinda always been trouble? Built like a video game girl and smart as an artificial intelligence, Carlinda was an enigma and an open book all at the same time.

She’d been the nexus of Oak Hill gossip for as long as I could remember, the generator behind its engine of whispers and sidelong comments. Carlinda couldn’t help it. See, she didn’t look like a genius — at least, not how the movies and the like will make you think a genius looks. Carlinda had velvety dark skin and an hourglass figure that I both yearned for and lusted after. Her nose was wide and her hair was wild, naturally full curls that no chemical had ever touched. As a confused queer Black girl, I wanted to both be her and ask her out. And who wouldn’t want to look like Carlinda?

She didn’t dress like no genius, neither — or at least what people told us a genius looked like. Tight shirts, booty shorts, even those ready-made garments you get from the clothing machines looked good on her. And she knew it. In high school, she had a body everyone lusted after, but as soon as she opened her mouth, the come-ons and flirtations usually died.

She was just too fucking beautiful and too fucking smart.

And we’d all resented her for it.

Everyone knew that smarts like that didn’t kick around in Oak Hill for long

Because everyone knew that smarts like that didn’t kick around in Oak Hill for long. Folks like that got sponsored trips to the colonies on Europa or Mars or one of the other stations to attend one of the good colleges off of Earth and away from the shit show that was the smog, overcrowding, heat, and early death here.

When I walk by the old junkyard, the one that had been locked up with a big “FOR SALE: NEIMAN PROPERTIES” sign out in front since before I left to join the Navy, Carlinda stands in front of the fence, trying to open the lock. It’s a digital model, new and shiny, and she frowns as she tries to manipulate it. Before, I would’ve walked by, ducking my head and keeping on.

But I’m somebody now, a war hero and a local celebrity, so I plaster a friendly smile on my face and sashay over.

“Hey, you need help?” I ask.

She glances up and then back at the lock. “Only if you have a ten series magnet jammer.”

I swing my pack off of my back and pull it out of a front pocket. “Will a nine series work?” I ask.

She looks up, her attention fully upon me for the first time ever. “Mimi?” she asks.

I laugh. “Yeah. I’m surprised you remember me.”

“I always remember girls who can hijack a security lock,” she says. My face heats because her words take me back to a time in my life that I’m not especially proud of, even if it is true.

“Well, I’m afraid everything I do is completely legal now,” I say. “Unless you’re trying to break into this junkyard?”

“I’m going to use it to build a spaceship so that everyone can go to Europa.”

“Nope. I own it,” she says, taking the mag tool and using it to sizzle the lock. “Thanks,” she says, handing it back.

“You’re welcome,” I say. “What you want with a junkyard?”

“Oh,” she says, looking up and giving me a mischievous grin. “I’m going to use it to build a spaceship so that everyone can go to Europa.”

Before I can respond, she slips inside the gate, locks it behind her, and disappears into the clutter of the yard.

I think about what Carlinda said for the rest of the day and the next. I think about it as I buy groceries and as I go running on the local high school’s indoor mechanical track because the air quality outside is at the “treacherous” level on the local government website and my rebreather is broken. I think about what she said for so long that it keeps me awake long after the rest of my roommates have gone to sleep.

Europa is a dream for most folks in Oak Hill. They say that the domes are filled with plants, most of them extinct here on Earth. The temperature is controlled so that the days aren’t hot enough to kill all of the wildlife, and the air is always safe to breathe. Not only that, but they’re filled with technology that works. No need to hack digital locks that have stopped functioning. No worries about an elevator stranding you between floors five and six so that you end up cooked alive when the power fails. The domes are as close to paradise as anyone can get.

But a ticket to Europa or even Mars, which is closer, costs more than most folks in Oak Hill make in a lifetime. And that’s the jig: if you can’t get there, you can’t live the good life.

A ticket to Europa costs more than most folks in Oak Hill make in a lifetime

In the middle of the night, the power goes out, casting the apartment into hot darkness. I try to imagine living on Europra — working at a job that doesn’t end in cancer at 55 from chemical exposure, running outside under an artificial sun, the scent of greenery filling my nose — and a curious fluttering erupts in my chest. At first, I think that maybe I’m having a heart attack, but then I realize it’s something else.

It’s hope.

There is no way I could ever afford to go to Europa, even if I signed up for an indenture program. Using my Navy benefits wouldn’t even get me close. But building a ship to find a way around the shippers who charge an exorbitant rate and the corporations that take your life in exchange for safety? That’s a genius-level hustle.

And I want in.

I get up as soon as I can without pissing off all of my roommates and head straight to the junkyard. The sun hasn’t yet made its fiery appearance, but the streetlights flood the neighborhood with their sickly yellow light. The tall buildings loom over me, casting menacing shadows that hide scurrying rats. I hear Carlinda working before I see her, a rhythmic pounding that echoes off of the surrounding buildings and climbs above the early morning honking and engine noise of the traffic on the nearby highway. When I stop in front of the gate, she’s in the center of the yard, a mallet raised above her head, the spotlight she works under burnishing her curls. It’s like that sight gag on TV where they show something beautiful all lit up and a heavenly choir starts singing. But it ain’t Carlinda I want. It’s what she represents.

My brain short-circuits, and I blurt out “Did you mean it?” without any kind of greeting.

She pauses and turns toward me. “Did I mean what?”

“Are you really building a ship to go to Europa?”

She straightens and puts her hands on her hips. “Yeah. I am. Why?”

“I want in,” I say, and the incandescent feeling in my chest flares. “I want to help.”

She rolls her eyes. “I don’t need anything codejacked, but thanks.”

I swallow my frustration. Once a criminal, always a criminal, no matter what the truth might be. I should be used to it by now, but I’m not. Even 20 years ain’t enough to change that.

“I’m a pilot!” I yell across the yard. “I can fly anything.”

“I’m a pilot! I can fly anything.”

“Anything?” she says, skepticism clear in her voice.

“Fifteen years in the Navy. And before that, codejacking anything I could to take it out for a spin,” I say. “Who else you have to fly your ship?”

She pauses and sets the hammer down. By the time she opens the gate, I’m nearly bouncing on my heels like a little kid.

“Fine. You’re in,” she says. “Come on. I’ll introduce you to everyone else.”

I follow her through the junkyard to a concrete building toward the back. Voices and the scent of coffee filter into the early morning air, chasing away the stink of exhaust from the nearby superhighway.

Carlinda ducks through a doorway, and I follow, my eyes taking a minute to adjust. I’m not sure what I’m expecting, but it isn’t the ragtag group of people standing before me.

“Who’s this?” an older white woman demands. “And where is my thinsular shielding?”

“I’m going to have to find another fuel casing to break apart,” Carlinda says. “And this is Mimi Herbert. She’s going to be our pilot.”

There’s a long moment of silence, and then another person, an older Latino man with deeply lined skin, says, “Welcome to the dream. Let’s get to work.”

It takes me two days of blowing off work and helping Carlinda before I actually believe that she really is building a starship.

There are four people besides Carlinda working on the ship: Luis, a mechanical engineer; Hildy, a structural engineer; Ghost, a computer programmer; and Sasha, a flight theorist who, along with Carlinda, came up with this idea in the first place.

The conceit of the project? Build an open-source rocket that anyone could build and use to get to Europa or Mars. In Carlinda’s case, Europa.

In the Navy, I once had a captain who said, “The easier the plan, the better the chance of success.” If that’s true, then there is virtually no way Carlinda’s Ark can fail.

The day is already hot, nearly 100 degrees at 8AM. By lunchtime, it’ll be treacherous to be outside. “There are laws on Europa promoting the common good and general welfare,” Carlinda says as we work. “The problem is getting people there. That’s why I designed a ship anyone could build with readily found materials. The hardest thing to find will be the reactor, but most people have been resourceful.”

“I designed a ship anyone could build with readily found materials.”

“Wait, most people?” I ask, pausing as I fasten down heat shielding.

“Oh, yeah. There are approximately 1,000 people building arks around the world, and more every day. I figure by the time we launch next week, we’ll be up to 5,000 ships.”

“Umm, isn’t that dangerous? All of those ships in the same airspace?”

Carlinda laughs and straightens, stretching her arms over her head. “Nope. There’s a rerouting built into the navigation system to keep the ships from colliding. Honestly, the biggest problem will be getting people to show up for the launch. We have to be quick before the government finds out.”

I pause and straighten as well. “Wait, so this is illegal?”

She shrugs. “Not technically. There are laws about where you can fly, but nothing that regulates a DIY rocket powered by organic matter, mostly because there wasn’t one until we designed it. But it’s in Earth’s best interest to make sure people can’t just pick up and move to the colonies. I mean, 85 percent of manufacturing is done here with cheap labor in substandard conditions.

“And the people on Europa? Their businesses are here. They might play at being open-minded, but they like things just the way they are. If everyone starts picking up and moving, there won’t be enough people for the corporations to exploit. It’s why things are so bad here. They rely on the poverty cycle to keep people where they are.”

“It’s in Earth’s best interest to make sure people can’t just pick up and move to the colonies.”

She puts her hands on her hips and looks askance at me. “You don’t really think it costs that much to transport people to the colonies, do you? The price is high for a reason, especially since most companies have their own ships.” She stands up tall, and her voice carries like a preacher in the midst of a sermon.

I hold my hands up in surrender. “I get it, I get it. You want to help people get a better life.”

“No,” Carlinda says, her voice low. “I want a revolution.”

That sounds like a bit much. For most folks, it’s hard enough just to survive day to day. Why borrow trouble? But if this is the way she wants to go, I can definitely help her with getting people off planet — and getting the word out.

“I might not know how to build a rocket, but I know how to get people talking about something. And besides,” I give her my best grin and run my hand along the side of my head, the clean-shaven spot where it backs up to my cornrows, “I need a haircut.”

By the next morning, the entire neighborhood is buzzing with news of Carlinda’s Ark.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that gossip shared in a barber shop travels faster than the speed of light. When I walk up to the junkyard to help with the building, there are about 20 people hanging around, gawking and talking and generally getting in the way. I say hi to a few of them, shaking hands and thumping backs, and when Carlinda sees me, she is all smiles.

“With this many people helping, we’ll finish even faster,” she calls.

By the next morning, the entire neighborhood is buzzing with news of Carlinda’s Ark

That’s when the cops show up.

I’m not sure whether it’s the gathering crowd, all those brown and black faces setting off some kind of an alarm somewhere, or the sight of a half-built rocket just inside of the gate, but the red and blue flashing lights are the least surprising thing I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. The officers that get out are both white, their scowls as much a part of their uniforms as the sleek black guns on their hips.

Carlinda stops her conversation and strides over, arms crossed and head held high. Today, she wears the smallest pair of shorts I’ve ever seen and a tank top, but you wouldn’t know it from her expression, which is barely civil. “Can I help you, officer?”

“We got a complaint from the owner of this place that there were some issues with people gathering,” one of the officers says.

“I’m not sure how that can be since I own this entire block,” Carlinda says, holding out her wrist so the officer can scan her credentials. I rock back on my heels. I knew she owned the junkyard, yeah. But the rest of the block?

Maybe some of those rumors about Carlinda had been true.

There’s a flash of annoyance as the officers exchange a glance, but whatever comes up on their screens is enough that their entire demeanor shifts. “Our apologies, Ms. Winstead. We thought—”

“Who really sent you?” she asks, and their apologies die on their lips, their expressions shuttering.

“Ma’am, I’m afraid we told you everything we know,” says one officer.

“There was an anonymous tip,” says the other.

“Is that all, officers? As you can see, I’m very busy.”

“Uh-huh. I bet,” Carlinda says, and a few folks in the crowd begin to murmur because we’ve all seen this episode before. Carlinda, though, is completely unbothered. “Is that all, officers? As you can see, I’m very busy.”

The police officers murmur nonsense and leave just as quickly as they came. I watch them go, the nervous itch I always get when cops are near making me rub the back of my neck. “What was that about?”

“That was the opening salvo,” she says, her jaw tense. “I checked this morning and our blueprints had over 100,000 downloads and counting. Someone important has noticed what we’re doing, so we need to hurry up and finish before they find a way to criminalize ingenuity.”

She shakes off whatever anger began to creep in and gives me a wide grin. “You ready to help me finish this?”

I shake off my own nervousness. “Let’s get this done.”

With so many hands to help, the rocket comes together quickly.

I don’t understand propulsion or any of that stuff, but I know what a good-looking ship looks and feels like. And when I sit in the pilot’s seat and power up Carlinda’s rocket for the first time, well, I know two things.

First, this thing is going to fly.

Second, as soon as we take this homemade rocket up into the stars and on to Europa, things are going to change — whether for the better or the worse, I don’t know. I can feel everything poised upon a precipice, like perching at the edge of a diving board. We’re about to make history, to disrupt the system.

We’re about to make history, to disrupt the system

And that is terrifying.

The day of launch, I’m running a little late, so I have to run, wheezing and hacking, all the way to the junkyard. The plan is that Carlinda and I will take it out of the atmosphere, just to make sure everything is cool, then bring it back and load up all the folks in the neighborhood who feel like striking out for paradise. There are only about 200 people, which I guess isn’t all that shocking. Uprooting everything and starting fresh is a scary prospect, and though I’m out of a job and down to about a hundred dollars in my bank account, even I’m having second thoughts.

But when I get to the junkyard first thing in the morning, people are scrambling in and out and around the rocket like an upset anthill. I grab the nearest body. “Hey, what’s going on?”

The woman stops, and it takes me a moment to remember her name. Lovey Sinclair. “Didn’t you hear? The Senate is planning on passing a new law so that it’ll cost people like us a whole bunch of money to fly a rocket. Carlinda wants everyone to take off now,” Lovey says.

“But we didn’t even test it out first!”

Lovey shrugs. “Look, I don’t care. I’d rather take my chances up there than down here with my ex.”

She moves away, into the line waiting to board the rocket, and I run around until I find Carlinda off to the side talking to Luis. She sees me and grins wide.

“Good, you’re here. Change of plans: instead of a test run, we’re going to do a full launch. Luis took the ship up into a near orbit earlier today, and everything is ready to go.”

I shake my head. “No, this isn’t what we planned. What if the ship doesn’t fully function? And how can you be so excited when everything is falling apart?”

“Luis, hit the panic button. It’ll buy us some time.”

The flash of blue and red lights approaching draws our attention, and Carlinda jerks her head toward the gates. “Luis, hit the panic button. It’ll buy us some time.”

Luis runs off, and Carlinda turns back to me. “This was always the plan, Mimi. The game is rigged, and we all knew that as soon as a few people found out this was happening, they were going to come down. Hard. And that’s what we wanted. Sure, getting people to Europa is great, but disrupting the entire system? Turning their tricks against them? That’s the real way we win.”

The buzz of drones comes from overhead, and she looks up. “It’s the media. Right on time. You’d better run, Mimi. You got a ship to fly.” And then she darts off into the crowd.

I hesitate for a moment, my good sense warring with my desire to be gone, to run from the looming consequences of this moment. But then I’m running up the boarding ramp with everyone else, pushing my way to the front where a group of younger boys crowds around the console.

“That’s my seat,” I say, and something in my expression makes them fall back without a word. “Tell everyone to get on board or clear out. We lift off in two.”

They were the two longest minutes of my entire life. The cops didn’t come to play, and by the time I’m raising the ramp and sealing the doors, they’ve started using an armored vehicle on the gate.

Folks later told me that as we’d taken to the air, climbing faster than any ship they’d ever seen, Carlinda had thrown her head back and laughed like a mad woman, even as cops tackled her to the ground and hauled her away. Some even said a few of the officers had tried shooting us down. And when we land on Europa, we find the dents to prove it. While the officials that greet us are brusque and a little annoyed, it doesn’t matter. The laws said that anyone who asks for citizenship on Europa can have it, and within a day, we’re all citizens of the colony.

I suspect that the good folks up here will find a way to change that soon, especially since more people keep showing up in variations of Carlinda’s rocket. But that’s a worry for another day.

Sometimes, when I’m jogging along one of the many paths through the gardens and nature preserves, or when I’m eating food that is clean and safe, I wonder what happened to Carlinda Winstead. Did she get her revolution, quiet or not? Did she ever get her happily ever after?

Because I sure as hell got mine.

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