You Are Released
Written by Joe Hill and narrated by Corey Stoll

 

A RA LEE IN COACH

For a moment at her brother’s wedding in Jeju, A Ra thought she saw her father, who has been dead for seven years. The ceremony and reception were held in a vast and lovely private garden, bisected by a deep, cool, man-made river. Children threw handfuls of pellets into the current and watched the water boil with rainbow carp, a hundred heaving, brilliant fish in all the colors of treasure: rose-gold and platinum and new-minted copper. A Ra’s gaze drifted from the kids to the ornamental stone bridge crossing the brook and there was her father in one of his cheap suits, leaning on the wall, grinning at her, his big homely face seamed with deep lines. The sight of him startled her so badly she had to look away, was briefly breathless with shock. When she looked back, he was gone. By the time she was in her seat for the ceremony, she had concluded that she had only seen Jum, her father’s younger brother, who cut his hair the same way. It would be easy, on such an emotional day, to momentarily confuse one for another… especially given her decision not to wear her glasses to the wedding.

On the ground, the student of evolutionary linguistics at M.I.T. places her faith in what can be proved, recorded, known, and studied. But now she is aloft and feeling more open-minded. The 777—all three hundred-odd tons of it—hurtles through the sky, lifted by immense, unseen forces. Nothing carries everything on its back. So it is with the dead and the living, the past and the present. Now is a wing and history is beneath it, holding it up. A Ra’s father loved fun—he ran a novelty factory for forty years, fun was his actual business. Here in the sky, she is willing to believe he would not have let death get between him and such a happy evening.

“I’m so fucking scared right now,” Arnold Fidelman says.

She nods. She is too.

“And so fucking angry. So fucking angry.”

She stops nodding. She isn’t and chooses not to be. In this moment more than any other she chooses not to be.

Fidelman says, “That motherfucker, Mister Make-America-So-Fucking-Great over there. I wish we could bring back the stocks, just for one day, so people could hurl dirt and cabbages at him. Do you think this would be happening if Obama was in office? Any of this—this—lunacy? Listen. When we get down—if we get down. Will you stay with me on the jetway? To report what happened? You’re an impartial voice in all this. The police will listen to you. They’ll arrest that fat creep for pouring his beer on me, and he can enjoy the end of the world from a dank little cell, crammed in with shitty raving drunks.”

She has shut her eyes, trying to place herself back in the wedding garden. She wants to stand by the man-made river and turn her head and see her father on the bridge again. She doesn’t want to be afraid of him this time. She wants to make eye contact and smile back.

But she isn’t going to get to stay in her wedding garden of the mind. Fidelman’s voice has been rising along with his hysteria. The big man across the aisle, Bobby, catches the last of what he has to say.

“While you’re making your statement to the police,” Bobby says, “I hope you won’t leave out the part where you called my wife smug and ignorant.”

“Bobby,” says the big man’s wife, the little woman with the adoring eyes. “Don’t.”

A Ra lets out a long slow breath and says, “No one is going to report anything to police in Fargo.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Fidelman says, his voice shaking. His legs are shaking too.

“No,” A Ra says, “I’m not. I’m sure of it.”

“Why are you so sure?” asks Bobby’s wife. She has bright bird-like eyes and quick bird-like gestures.

“Because we aren’t landing in Fargo. The plane stopped circling the airport a few minutes after the missiles launched. Didn’t you notice? We left our holding pattern some time ago. Now we’re headed north.”

“How do you know that?” asks the little woman.

“The sun is on the left side of the plane. Hence, we go north.”

Bobby and his wife look out the window. The wife makes a low hum of interest and appreciation.

“What’s north of Fargo?” the wife asks. “And why would we go there?”

Bobby slowly lifts a hand to his mouth, a gesture which might indicate he’s giving the matter his consideration, but which A Ra sees as Freudian. He already knows why they aren’t landing in Fargo and has no intention of saying.

A Ra only needs to close her eyes to see in her mind exactly where the warheads must be now, well outside of the earth’s atmosphere, already past the crest of their deadly parabola and dropping back into gravity’s well. There is perhaps less than ten minutes before they strike the other side of the planet. A Ra saw at least thirty missiles launch, which is twenty more than are needed to destroy a nation smaller than New England. And the thirty they have all witnessed rising into the sky are certainly only a fraction of the arsenal that has been unleashed. Such an onslaught can only be met with a proportional response, and no doubt America’s ICBMs have crossed paths with hundreds of rockets sailing the other way. Something has gone horribly wrong, as was inevitable when the fuse was lit on this string of geopolitical firecrackers.

But A Ra does not close her eyes to picture strike and counter-strike. She prefers instead to return to Jeju. Carp riot in the river. The fragrant evening smells of lusty blossoms and fresh-cut grass. Her father puts his elbows on the stone wall of the bridge and grins mischievously.

“This guy—” says Fidelman. “This guy and his goddamn wife. Calls Asians ‘Orientals.’ Talks about how your people are ants. Bullies people by throwing beer at them. This guy and his goddamn wife put reckless, stupid people just like themselves in charge of this country and now here we are. The missiles are flying.” His voice cracks with strain and A Ra senses how close he is to crying.

She opens her eyes once more. “This guy and his goddamn wife are on the plane with us. We’re all on this plane.” She looks over at Bobby and his wife, who are listening to her. “However we got here, we’re all on this plane now. In the air. In trouble. Running as hard as we can.” She smiles. It feels like her father’s smile. “Next time you feel like throwing a beer, give it to me instead. I could use something to drink.”

Bobby stares at her for an instant with thoughtful, fascinated eyes—then laughs.

Bobby’s wife looks up at him and says, “Why are we running north? Do you really think Fargo could be hit? Do you really think we could be hit here? Over the middle of the United States?” Her husband doesn’t reply, so she looks back at A Ra.

A Ra weighs in her heart whether the truth would be a mercy or yet another assault. Her silence, however, is answer enough.

The woman’s mouth tightens. She looks at her husband and says, “If we’re going to die, I want you to know I’m glad I’ll be next to you when it happens. You were good to me, Robert Jeremy Slate.”

He turns to his wife and kisses her and draws back and says, “Are you kidding me? I can’t believe a fat man like me wound up married to a knock-out like you. It’d be easier to draw a million dollar lottery ticket.”

Fidelman stares at them and then turns away. “Oh for fuck’s sake. Don’t start being human on me now.” He crumples up a beery paper towel and throws it at Bob Slate.

It bounces off Bobby’s temple. The big man turns his head and looks at Fidelman… and laughs. Warmly.

A Ra closes her eyes, puts her head against the back of her seat.

Her father watches her approach the bridge, through the silky spring night.

As she steps up onto the stone arch, he reaches out to take her hand, and lead her on to an orchard, where people are dancing.

 

 

KATE BRONSON IN THE COCKPIT

By the time Kate finishes field dressing Vorstenbosch’s head injury, the flight attendant is groaning, stretched out on the cockpit floor. She tucks his glasses into his shirt pocket. The left lens was cracked in the fall.

“I have never ever lost my footing,” Vorstenbosch says, “in twenty years of doing this. I am the Fred-Effing-Astaire of the skies. No. The Grace-Effing-Kelly. I can do the work of all other flight attendants, but backward and in heels.”

Kate says, “I’ve never seen a Fred Astaire film. I was always more of a Sly Stallone girl.”

“Serf,” Vorstenbosch says.

“Right to the bone,” Kate agrees, and squeezes his hand. “Don’t try and get up. Not yet.”

Kate springs lightly to her feet and slips into the seat beside Waters. When the missiles launched, the imaging system lit up with bogeys, a hundred red pinpricks and more, but there’s nothing now except the other planes in the immediate vicinity. Most of the other aircraft are behind them, still circling Fargo. Captain Waters turned them to a new heading while Kate tended to Vorstenbosch.

“What’s going on?” she asks.

His face alarms her. He’s so waxy he’s almost colorless.

“It’s all happening,” he says. “The president has been moved to a secure location. The cable news says Russia launched.”

“Why?” she asks, as if it matters.

He shrugs helplessly, but then replies, “Russia, or China, or both put defenders in the air to turn back our bombers before they could get to Korea. A sub in the South Pacific responded by striking a Russian aircraft carrier. And then. And then.”

“So,” Kate says.

“No Fargo.”

“Where?” Kate can’t seem to load more than a single word at a time. There is an airless, tight sensation behind her breastbone.

“There must be somewhere north we can land, away from—from what’s coming down behind us. There must be somewhere that isn’t a threat to anyone. Nunavut maybe? They landed a seven-seventy-seven at Iqaluit last year. Short little runway at the end of the world but it’s technically possible and we might have enough fuel to make it.”

“Silly me,” Kate says. “I didn’t think to pack a winter coat.”

He says, “You must be new to long-haul flying. You never know where they’re going to send you, so you always make sure to have a swimsuit and mittens in your bag.”

She is new to long-haul flying—she attained her 777 rating just six months ago—but she doesn’t think Waters’s tip is worth taking to heart. Kate doesn’t think she’ll ever fly another commercial aircraft. Neither will Waters. There won’t be anywhere to fly to.

Kate isn’t going to see her mother, who lives in Pennsyltucky, ever again, but that’s no loss. Her mother will bake, along with the stepfather who tried to put a hand down the front of Kate’s Wranglers when she was fourteen. When Kate told her mom what he had tried to do, her mother said it was her own fault for dressing like a slut.

Kate will also never see her twelve-year-old half-brother again, and that does make her sad. Liam is sweet, peaceful, and autistic. Kate got him a drone for Christmas and his favorite thing in the world is to send it aloft to take aerial photographs. She understands the appeal. It has always been her favorite part of getting airborne, too, that moment when the houses shrink to the size of models on a train set. Trucks the size of ladybugs gleam and flash as they slide, frictionless, along the highways. Altitude reduces lakes to the size of flashing silver hand mirrors. From a mile up, a whole town is small enough to fit in the cup of your palm. Her half-brother Liam says he wants to be little, like the people in the pictures he takes with his drone. He says if he was as small as them, Kate could put him in her pocket, and take him with her.

They soar over the northernmost edge of North Dakota, gliding in the way she once sliced through the bathwater-warm water off Fai Fai Beach, through the glassy bright green of the Pacific. How good that felt, to sail as if weightless above the oceanworld beneath. To be free of gravity is, she thinks, to feel what it must be like to be pure spirit, to escape the flesh itself.

Minneapolis calls out to them. “Delta two-three-six, you are off course. You are about to vacate our airspace, what’s your heading?”

“Minneapolis,” Waters says, “our heading is zero-six-zero, permission to redirect to Yankee Foxtrot Bravo, Iqaluit Airport.”

“Delta two-three-six, why can’t you land at Fargo?”

Waters bends over the controls for a long time. A drop of sweat plinks on the dash. His gaze shifts briefly and Kate sees him looking at the photograph of his wife. “Minneapolis, Fargo is a first-strike location. We’ll have a better chance north. There are two hundred and forty seven souls onboard.”

The radio crackles. Minneapolis considers.

There is a snap of intense brightness, almost blinding, as if a flashbulb the size of the sun has gone off somewhere in the sky, behind the plane. Kate turns her head away from the windows and shuts her eyes. There is a deep muffled whump, felt more than heard, a kind of existential shudder in the frame of the aircraft. When Kate looks up again, there are green blotchy afterimages drifting in front of her eyeballs. It’s like diving Fai Fai again; she is surrounded by neon fronds and squirming fluorescent jellyfish.

Kate leans forward and cranes her neck. Something is glowing under the cloud cover, possibly as much as a hundred miles away behind them. The cloud itself is beginning to deform and expand, bulging upward.

As she settles back into her seat, there is another deep, jarring, muffled crunch, another burst of light. The inside of the cockpit momentarily becomes a negative image of itself. This time she feels a flash of heat against the right side of her face, as if someone switched a sunlamp on and off.

Minneapolis says, “Copy, Delta two-three-six. Contact Winnipeg Center one-two-seven-point-three.” The air traffic controller speaks with an almost casual indifference.

Vorstenbosch sits up. “I’m seeing flashes.”

“Us too,” Kate says.

“Oh my God,” Waters says. His voice cracks. “I should’ve tried to call my wife. Why didn’t I try to call my wife? She’s five months pregnant and she’s all alone.”

“You can’t,” Kate says. “You couldn’t.”

“Why didn’t I call and tell her?” Waters says, as if he hasn’t heard.

“She knows,” Kate tells him. “She already knows.” Whether they are talking about love or the apocalypse, Kate couldn’t say.

Another flash. Another deep, resonant, meaningful thump.

“Call now Winnipeg FIR,” says Minneapolis. “Call now Nav Canada. Delta two-three-six, you are released.”

“Copy, Minneapolis,” Kate says, because Waters has his face in his hands and is making tiny anguished sounds and can’t speak. “Thank you. Take care of yourselves, boys. This is Delta two-three-six. We’re gone.”

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