Mark I (1976)
Birth is the collision of prongs at the ends of fat, smoldering tubes—no warning, no care for consequence, and a thousand volts of electric fire. My life begins with them telling me: I am the euphoria of learning to fly, I am flight itself. I am Elevation Apparatus Mark I, and my birth is Man’s next thrust in the long, slow fucking it gives to natural limitations.
First flight is a myoclonic jerk. My body revs and groans beneath Pilot’s feet, and my metal fins flail before my backside erupts. His body is blasted high enough to clear the communications tower they reserved to broadcast their success.
Mark II (1979)
Birth is loud, big, expensive, but Pilot is gentle when he climbs aboard. My surviving parts are well-hidden beneath the new hull, because blood is hard to wash out. There are more people in suits this time, most of them new. They take pictures, as if the Roman “2” etched on my ass is their permission slip to do this again, and again.
Before liftoff, Pilot waxes philosophic on man’s insatiable desire for flight, the ceaseless yearning to break new ground. Or, in this case, break from it. “The call to flight is a call which cannot be unheard,” is what he actually says. Someone writes it down, the others nod in somber agreement, and Man’s next shot at flight begins—and ends with the same gurgling engine howl.
My body bifurcates, but I take him with me from the ankles down. The turbines eat what’s left.
Mark VI (1990)
Birth is a reimagining from archived specs. Parts are cheaper, lighter, more efficient; Pilot assures me the weight loss looks great. The scientists are new and young-sounding. They call me Goblin Glider, Silver Surfboard. One man posits the name Icarus and is smacked into silence.
But Pilot has read the old reports and calls me Elevation Apparatus Mark VI. She cares if I work, unlike the others, and the sentiment warms my engine.
So I feel bad when this time, after actually lifting off the ground, we nosedive straight back down. Pilot’s scream is cut short when her neck snaps shut like a hinge.
Mark IX (2007)
Birth is a YouTube video so grainy, commenters worldwide are convinced I am bad special effects. I will never know how many eyes watch me come alive with a hard thrum. I lift off the ground, setting and re-setting the record for human elevation. It’s happening, it’s working.
And I hate it. What should be flight is like clawing at the air, like trying to surface from a drowning that has been going on for thousands of years. Pilot is thrilled and pumps a fist into the air, which is really what does it.
Imbalance and weak circuits tear us both asunder, in a display that seven million viewers will agree is almost convincing but still pretty dumb.
Mark BV (2021)
Birth is what happens when fourteen years and a world war have solved the military funding problem. Pilot is not happy to see me, but he’s not trained to be happy. He doesn’t throb with the desire to fly. He is certain I am a waste of time and manpower, that I will fail. I want to like him.
Yet he avoids death like the soldier he is. My jackknife dives and suicide rolls should snap him like an icicle against a bone-metal fist, and he ducks and swerves, saying nothing. I am an unbroken horse for him to tame. I am death flying. My new part, an empathizer the size of a contact lens, gives me a cursory pride that my cannons and bombs will bring justice in the form of a thousand dead men. If I had a mouth, I would laugh at his body count compared to mine.
He doesn’t know, none of them know how many iterations of this idea have fought gravity and lost. Yet he thinks his mission is my mission, and his devotion to death brings me to the brink of feeling.
But we are not. Quite. There.
My engine blows out with a scream, his or mine. Most of him remains with me while in freefall, as seared flesh and melted bone. Long enough to reach an understanding that this fall is not the last.
Mark X (2029)
Birth is a collage of surveillance, OS updates, and a dissertation that concludes I am self-destructing, on purpose. As Pilot climbs aboard, he tells me he’s fixed my malfunction. My chips are smarter now, so I won’t self-abort at poor altitudes or collapse when my HUD flares with impossible numbers. He also tells me that he understands, and he is certain of this to a degree that would chill me if it could.
This time, my chasse is a sleek, weightless skin of pure muscle. My heart is a compact engine quiet as a stealth fighter and just as irrelevant in these days. My brain is a half-organic double-helix of algorithms and AI incentives, but only to the engineers around me.
I would tell them, if I could, that I am not flight, because I am the addiction to flight. I am not evolution, because I am Darwin’s knife. They think they know, and maybe they want to, so I drive Pilot into the ground at a speed better left to failed shuttle launches.
He sees death coming and is already thinking about the next Mark. He is content because he knows they will try again. My fury buries both of us, so far in the ground and so fast that parts of his body are forever fused with mine.
He’s right. I am self-destruction. I may even be malfunction. But I am not wrong.
She is alone when she finds me, wings folded beneath a burnt, broken body. She grips my hull, drags me like a sled, and I realize I have not been born, but found. We are in a hole, dug to escape some terror from above. She pulls me through tunnels made long before Man, through caves entirely unconcerned at the inconvenience caused by their vastness.
I can feel that she’s not seeking ascension as she straddles my still-hot spine. She is as heedless of the bloodstains as she is desperate to cross the chasm before us, a wound in the earth littered with white bits of people she doesn’t want to join.
It is, by no human imagining, a jump. Even without my HUD, without my half-organic mind, I know there’s no way to cross except by flight.
She doesn’t tell me anything. Instead, she asks. There is need, but no desire, no expectation. There’s no waiting, either—a push, then weightlessness. Darkness rises, death flying up to greet us, and I am afraid. She grips the hull, just a little tighter. For my sake.
Then a groan, a thrust in mid-air, and a howling of engines that cannot be unheard. Then a falling that doesn’t feel like those that came before.
AUTHOR BIO: Jared W. Cooper is a Jersey-born editor who may or may not also be an actual bear. He spends his time pursuing vision quests in the woods, collecting obscure teas, and can be found on twitter as jaredwcooper.