(Author’s note: This is a story I wrote years ago which, after having earned its share of rejection slips, was filed away and forgotten. I enjoyed writing it, and I’m still fond of it despite its wonky sci-fi tropes, so I thought I’d post it here.)
“Flight of Icarus”
(c) 1992 by Michael L. Utley
“Show me again…” The blonde stretched cat-like under the metallic-blue silk sheets, her hair a golden aurora about her high-boned face. Crimson lacquered nails beat a nervous, expectant tattoo on her sternum as she spoke, eyes the hue of overcast autumn skies steady, intense.
Gilt stood above her, buttoning his weather-worn light jacket. He noticed the tiny specks of white powder about her nostrils and a faint wave of revulsion swept over him. Her eyes, her stormcloud eyes… He imagined he saw minute flashes of angry blue lightning deep inside them, lightning strengthened by the drug but spawned by something else. He paused, checking to see if her right wrist was still handcuffed to the bedpost. It was.
“It’s late,” he said, but he began unbuttoning his jacket as he sat on the bed. Outside, distant sirens wailed senselessly, eternally, in the darkness beneath Grand Dome. The muted patter of rain drifted down from above as it had for the past three hours. Sporadic bursts of brilliant blue ball lightning (or was it that damned artillery? He no longer seemed to care) illuminated the interior of the room, throwing harsh shadows against the water-stained walls.
“You gotta go somewhere?” The blonde laughed. “Like where you gonna go on a night like this? Can’t you hear ‘em out there? They won’t stop just to let you through,” she said, grinning her gleaming, stoned grin.
Gilt said nothing. He removed his jacket and tugged off his black turtleneck. Sweat ran freely down his temples. The girl, whose name was Tassandra (he glanced briefly at the name and number inelegantly scrolled on her forehead—they all seemed to be marked nowadays, he thought), was right on that count, but he didn’t plan on hanging around much longer, artillery or no artillery. Besides, the street fighting had moved over into the Northeast Quadrant and, while fierce, was not an immediate threat here in Southwest Grand Dome.
Tassandra pulled herself up to a half-sitting position atop the pillows, the sheet spilling off her chest and exposing pert, upturned breasts. A small golden ring dangled from her pierced left nipple.
Gilt went to work removing a faded red t-shirt with an odd series of numbers on the left breast. The blonde had asked about these numbers earlier, but he had declined to explain them to her. He’d told no one about his stint on that god-forsaken rock which the authorities had so quaintly referred to as the Greater Io Penal Colony, and he didn’t plan on taking a shovel to his past to satisfy some cheap hooker. Besides, that had been five years ago, and even though there was still no statute of limitations concerning jailbreak, he’d managed to lay low this long. And low he’d stay.
“Why do you wear so many goddam shirts, anyway?” Tassandra asked, reaching across her pale breasts with her free left hand to grab the smoldering cigarette on the bedstand. “If it was me, I’d be proud of ‘em, show ‘em off, you know?” She took a deep drag on the cigarette, then expelled a faint cloud of pink smoke.
Because what I’ve got is highly illegal, he wanted to say. He sighed inwardly, congratulating himself on picking such a winner this time. He guessed the chick was too busy flat on her back all the time to pay attention to such trivial things as legal codes. Yeah, baby, he mused, what I’ve got could get me shot on the spot, no questions asked. Years ago, the sentence had been merely life in one of the penal colonies on Io and Europa or on one of the bigger asteroids, but lobbying by the World Congress had changed all that ten years ago. And so, as she had so profoundly stated, he wore a lot of shirts.
The faded red shirt slipped over his head and the lone remaining covering was a dull metallic sleeveless t-shirt made from some sort of green support fabric. A zipper ran up the front, and as Gilt prepared to unzip, Tassandra interrupted.
“Let me…if you don’t mind.” She reached for him but her handcuffed right hand held her back. A mild look of desperation crossed her face, and she grunted as she strained for him.
“Here,” he said, moving closer, not to please her but to prevent any kind of unwanted scene. It’s that new coke, he thought, that new stuff that no one really understood yet, not even the makers. Unpredictable.
Long, slender fingers grasped the small zip-tab and slowly pulled down. The girl moaned unconsciously, her stormy eyes now lit by some weird interior light, some caustic craving, some toxic lust. He wanted to pull away, but he remained moveless. She was just a cheap, ignorant prostitute. Let her have her thrill. Besides, how many people could say they’d fucked a man with—
“Ahhh…” she groaned. “There we are.” She settled back amid the pillows again as Gilt stood to remove the garment. The shade on the bedlamp interrupted the light, throwing him in shadows from the neck up. He peeled the dull green shirt off his chest with a faint static popping sound, then slipped out of it entirely.
“Turn around so I can see,” Tassandra commanded, her breath coming in quick little gasps.
Gilt turned slowly and faced the window and the night beyond. Dim whistles of mortar and muted explosions shook the night, but the rain seemed to hold dominion over all. Now and again the strange ball lightning lit up the troubled horizon, revealing a jagged landscape of towering spires, smoking craters and enormous pyramids. Puffy contrails of passing K-119s stretched like spider webs across the patches of velvety blackness when the lightning flashed, and for a moment he remembered the caves beneath the penal colony which he’d used to escape, the caverns which stretched for kilometers just beneath the surface of Io. And he recalled the things which inhabited them, big, clumsy, blind things which hid in lairs of webs. He shuddered.
Behind him, Tassandra moaned again.
He’d become accustomed to the Freakshow Effect, as some of his people had deemed it: the sensation of being inside a glass jar as spectators milled around, trying to decide just what in the hell you were. He’d never paraded himself like some of the others had; he’d kept hidden his anomaly, had tried to stay within the rut of normalcy. But there were the inevitable occasions on which he’d had to reveal himself, and the reaction was always the same. First shock, then wonder, then something akin to clinical awe, all held together by thick strands of revulsion. It was all-eyes-and-no-hands on the part of the viewers, as if they were afraid whatever he had was catching. And the hookers always reacted the same way, but after their kind. A little bit of disgust, soon displaced by a whole lot of lust. That was something he could never figure out, and he’d stopped trying years ago.
“Spread them for me,” spoke Tassandra from behind him.
He closed his eyes and mopped his brow with a rough, calloused hand. Be a good dog and spread them for me, the thought, but he obeyed. He flexed certain muscles on his upper back and along his shoulder blades, and the leathery flaps extended themselves out past his shoulders. Small, stubby, finger-like talons clawed lazily at the humid air as he mimicked the effect of a breeze under his wings. The mottled flesh was darker than that of his body, almost smoky-black, and each wing stretched about three feet to either side of his torso. Kinky, pubic-like hair grew along the folds of the useless appendages, and each time an artillery shell or a flash of lightning would light up the sky outside, a roadmap of veins and arteries became visible, prevalent moreso on the insides of the flaps.
“You like?” Gilt asked, trying to sound cheery but failing miserably. Actually, he felt like getting the hell out of there as soon as possible. Revealing himself always made him nervous and paranoid.
“Oh…I love them.” Her tone suggested his wings were a more powerful aphrodisiac than that potent new coke she’d snorted an hour ago. “They make me wet.”
He relaxed the span and turned to face her. One look at her told him of his effect on her. Her face was hot and high color rode her cheekbones like angry sunsets. Her stormcloud eyes were dark and looming and hungry, and they seemed to hold his in a tractor beam.
A long moment passed and then, as if some spell had been broken, Tassandra blushed and lowered her eyes. Gilt waited.
Finally: “Who are you…really?” Her voice was almost shy.
Gilt sat on the bed and reached for his green undershirt. “You don’t want to know.”
“Wait. Don’t. Please, not yet…” She placed her free hand on his right arm, preventing him from clothing himself. “I just…I just was curious, that’s all.”
He regarded her for a moment and then draped the undershirt across his knee. Outside, the scream of mortar tore through the night. He wondered, not for the first time since his arrival on Mars not long ago, when one of those bastards was going to blow a hole right through the Dome. One hell of a cease-fire that would create. He blew a soft puff of air through his lips. “I’m not a local. I’m an off-worlder.”
“You’re from Earth?” Her eyes lit up, as if some forgotten memory had resurfaced in her mind.
“Yeah. The States. At least, they used to call them that, before the damned World Congress took over. That was all quite a few years ago, and it’s been nothing but trouble there since.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
“It’s…” he faltered. If he went on, he’d end up having to tell her more than he wanted. But, really, where was the problem in telling her the truth? Maybe it was true she was just a backworld tramp with a bottom-rung government-subsidized job, but she wasn’t asking much. Not too much. “It’s nothing but a big witch-hunt back there now. The World Congress…it’s a theocracy. I don’t know what happened exactly, but basically everybody’s so flipped-out over their much-beloved world leader that they treat him like a god. They worship the crazy lunatic. The whole planet is crazy. Except for a few, like me.”
“Like…you?” She motioned hesitantly at his collapsed wings, fingers reaching for but not quite daring to touch the dry flaps.
“Yeah, like me. There were other groups that went underground when the witch-hunts started. Mostly the few remaining practicing religious fundamentalists. They got it bad from the start. Just like the Holocaust.”
Tassandra’s eyes registered no knowledge of what that event was.
“But others got it bad as well,” he continued. “My kind…” He closed his eyes at the memories of the horrors back home. “The wings. The medical establishment called it the Icarus Syndrome. Couldn’t explain it. Couldn’t trace it genetically no matter how hard they tried. Some kind of mutation, they said. Could pop up unexpectedly anywhere. Just a weird medical anomaly. There were colonies of my kind, motley conglomerates from all races who…suffered, I guess you could say, from this unexplainable mutation. There were a very few who had functional wings—“
“They could fly? Actually fly?” Tassandra’s eyes were huge with odd, wistful glee.
“They could fly. And they were the ones who got the high and mighty World Congress after us. The damned World Congress…fanatics, heretics, lunatics… It was like the Inquisition way back when. You see,” Gilt said, suddenly feeling a great need to get this off his chest where the injustice of the situation had festered far too long, “their President, a self-proclaimed Hand of God on Earth, decided, on the basis of his cut-and-paste theology, that the Pit had finally opened and had spewed forth its obscenities.” His eyes were steady and tortured. “They declared us demons. Because of our wings.”
Tassandra said nothing. She simply sat there with mouth agape.
“They hunted us down, tortured us, threw us in prison. Their agents were all over the place. They’d raid our colonies at night, plunder our settlements, scatter their propaganda everywhere in the form of tracts and graffiti. Stormtrooper tactics. Prison camps. You name it, we got it. Some of the lucky ones were privileged enough to get an all-expense paid trip to the Greater Io and Europa Penal Colonies, where their quacks ran experiments on us, picked us apart, cut here, sewed there, grafts, drugs, anything. The ones they cut up got it easy. They were destroyed. All the rest, mandatory life sentences.”
“But you? What about you?” Her voice was soft and strained, as if someone were in the next room monitoring their conversation.
“Escaped. Greater Io Penal Colony just didn’t count on having to deal with someone with a little intelligence. The escape itself wasn’t that difficult, but it was hell waiting for the right moment. I ended up a stow-away on a supply ship headed back to Earth. Once back, I jumped another freighter headed off-world, anywhere.”
Gilt tugged on the dull green support shirt, tucking his wings neatly underneath as he zipped it up. He stood and pulled on the faded prison t-shirt.
“Did you have family on Earth, in the colonies? Did you go back to them?”
“No family. Nothing. Besides,” he said, slipping the black turtleneck over his sweat-moistened brown hair, “they changed the law while I was on The Rock. No more life sentences. Now, anytime someone like me shows up at a cocktail party or a bridge game, they don’t even ask questions. They crucify them. Fitting, in a way, considering that the head of the judiciary committee is also the head of the church.”
Tassandra considered this for a moment, and then she uttered a strange, almost self-conscious laugh.
“You’ll think I’m crazy,” Tassandra said, “but I just keep associating wings with feathers.”
“I’m not a fucking bird. I’m a human being. What did you expect?” His response was perhaps a little too harsh.
“Nothing, I guess,” she answered, lowering her eyes.
Gilt paused in the middle of buttoning his jacket, sighed, and said, “Hey, sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s not your fault. None of this shit’s your fault…”
Gilt finished the last button and walked across the room to the window. Without the jacket, he looked a little hunch-backed, but the layers of support garments and the loose-fitting flight jacket he’d picked up from a Grand Dome street merchant gave him the appearance of normality. He reached into his pocket and brought out several brightly colored plastic chips, set four orange ones down on the dresser, thought for a moment, and added a red. With that, he looked back and said, “I better run.”
Tassandra met his brown eyes with her own gray ones and said, “Where to now, Gilt? Where do you go from here?” Again, that strange, longing expression rendered her face almost vulnerable.
“I don’t know. I wish I did, but I honestly don’t.” He went to the door and before he left he tossed a small silver key to her. She one-handed it. The handcuff key. She would use it after Gilt left to free herself before she telecommed Port Authority to report another Icarus sighting. “Good-bye, Tassandra.”
She smiled. “Good-bye, Gilt.”
Gilt strode out of the hotel into the pouring rain. Distant, muffled explosions echoed in the night, and Gilt reflected somberly that, like death and disease, war had followed man to the stars. It was impossible to separate the race from its humanity, and hate and violence and prejudice too often seemed to be at the core of man’s dark heart. Besides, he mused, what was civilization without war and hate? That paradox brought an ironic grin to his lips. He stopped and craned his face up into the cool drops of water, marveling at the fact that it was raining here inside the Dome. The rest of Mars was dead, except for the experimental terraforming sectors, but the climate-control specialists had certainly earned their pay when they’d constructed the Grand Dome. War or not, it was something.
He walked down the street, not minding at all the rain trickling down his face and neck. His mood was pensive, and he gazed up into the rain as he walked, seeking fruitlessly for the stars through the thick cloud cover. The stars… They called, and he would answer, as he always had. His wings were useless, but there were other ways to fly. And he knew he must do so soon.
Tassandra’s eyes. They’d spoken volumes.
She would give him time, he knew. He’d been kind to her, and while kindness counted for little in the dark vastness of this cold world, he hoped it would be enough. He’d given her the key; she’d give him one of his own: time.
Gilt blinked back the rain, lowered his face, and headed for the spaceport.
7 thoughts on ““Flight of Icarus””
I enjoyed this story. Very intriguing world building. Thank you for sharing!
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Thanks for the kind words, Kirsten, and for taking time to read it. I appreciate it. 🙂
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Such interesting characters and setting! Your descriptions are fantastic. I really felt like I knew what that place looked like and sounded like. I could hear the rain. The dialogue towards the end was great too. I feel like this is the first chapter of a novel.
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Thanks. That’s the kindest appraisal anyone’s given this story. One memorable rejection slip from a sci-fi magazine editor simply said, “What’s the point of this story?” I had planned it as a sort of snapshot or character sketch of one brief moment in the life of the main character, following the much-touted advice to “start in the middle” of the story. I just wanted to explore this guy and his journey during one rainy night in a run-down motel on Mars. It’s not a perfect tale, and maybe the editor was right in not “getting it.” Years ago, a writer buddy of mine read this and said he thought it was “incomplete,”: that I should write more and flesh it out, make it longer, to use this as sort of a chapter in a larger whole. I’m embarrassed by much of it now, but part of me is fond of it anyway. It was fun to write, and that has to account for something, eh? 🙂 Thanks for reading this. I really appreciate your taking the time to go through it. 🙂
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I think I am learning that short stories do have to be pretty to-the-point. I think poetry and short stories, as you said, are very different beasts. Poetry can be about anything. A scene. A feeling. A moment. But stories are different. They’re expected to have a shape. I haven’t figured out yet what shapes are “acceptable”. Maybe there isn’t a list of acceptable shapes. But when you hit on one that works perhaps you know? I read a short story published in a respected Australian journal and I didn’t get the point of it. It was like a bell curve. Slow start, exciting, plot driven middle and then it petered to a close. I was perplexed.
You’re not alone. I’ve read plenty of things that left me scratching my head, wondering how they ended up getting published. Editors have inherent personal biases just like everyone else, and those biases can show up during readings of submitted material. Also, what if that editor is having a rotten day? In a bad mood? Maybe that editor has a certain preference for a particular literary style, a fondness for present-tense or dark comedy or straight boring literary tropes. It’s so hit-and-miss with this sort of thing. A story can be amazing and still be rejected for some arbitrary reason, and yet another story that’s poorly written might manage to get into print for some silly reason. Really all you can do is keep trying, keep submitting, if you have a piece you believe in. I read about a sci-fi author who had more than 650 rejections before he finally got a piece published. He ended up with several novels to his credit (I wish I could recall his name; I have one of his books but it’s in storage). Personally, I was never good at rejection–it stung too deeply and it was hard for me not to take it personally. That’s why I stopped writing way back then (I regret it, too).
My creative writing prof in college said the best opening line she ever saw in a short-story was something like “The woman looked me in the eye and said, ‘I am your father.'” My prof was trying to explain the concept of the “start in the middle” method. But yeah, short fiction is a unique beast. I’ve heard it described that a novel is a journey, while a short-story is a brief excursion. There’s definitely less room for exposition in short-stories, and they’ve got to be more immediate and urgent compared to novels. However, I believe it’s possible to write with a sort of poetic style in short-stories. I think there are always exceptions, that if something is good enough, it will be accepted even if it doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional short-story.
I’m rambling here. Sorry. My main influences for short-stories were Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. King’s short-stories were straight forward and streamlined, while Bradbury’s were like poetry with a decidedly lyrical feel to many of them. Both writers had long and successful careers.
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I haven’t got a story accepted anywhere yet. And I do find that writing prose messes with my poetry head a bit so it’s hard to know what to do. I will keep trying though. I think. The longer form is good for my brain.