Vision Dreams, A Parable
Joe was the first casualty. At one of our telephone meetings, he informed us that he was about to try flying his lighter-than-air craft and thought he could stretch his IVD well past the daily fifteen-minute limit. He’d been trying to do this for a while and thought he’d managed to maintain vision for as much as twenty minutes.
“How do you know for sure that you really can see for more than fifteen minutes?” I persisted. “For all you know, you could be seeing afterimages or just engaging in wishful thinking.”
“Get off my back!” he shot back. “I know what I’m seeing is real. The IVD is more powerful than they told us. Don’t you think that’s possible? I know I can do this.”
Then he added, “I don’t see why we have the fifteen-minute limit anyway. Why can’t we keep using the IVD all the time?”
“The doctor explained it to us,” I said, growing exasperated. “Don’t you remember? Or don’t you want to believe? The robotic implants are constantly discharging energy and moving from place to place in our brains. They need to recharge their energy cells after a short amount of use.”
“Do you have to do this solo?” [another of our group] Dan asked. “Why can’t the glider be controlled from the ground?”
“It’s a glider, Dan,” Joe answered with exasperation. “The whole idea is to be one with the wind. It’s the most natural form of flying there is. It’s as close to being like a bird as you can get.”
“You’re really going to risk your life for this?” [our fourth group member] Carla’s voice easily betrayed her anxiety.
“Yes,” Joe answered. “Please don’t worry, Carla. It’s only a matter of time before I try. And I have to try.”
The time finally arrived.
“Okay, Joe,” [flight coach] Jim called over the radio. “The weather reports say it’s a go. Prepare for takeoff.”
“Ready.” Joe adjusted his headset. “I hear you loud and clear,” he called into his radio.
The towplane accelerated down a short runway, yanking Joe and his balsa-light aircraft behind it. The ground bumped under him for a few seconds, and then just as the simulator had constructed, the plane lifted from the ground. Everything went smooth and silent. Joe was airborne.
“Turning to port,” the towplane pilot announced. Joe felt his left wing dip, and as gravity forced him to lean with his craft, he countered by tensing the muscles on the right side of his body. Gusts of air buffeted his craft as it ascended over the cliffs that lined the ocean shore below him.
“I’m turning to the right,” came the next announcement. Joe’s body followed his plane into the lean. He was getting used to the sound of the air outside his flimsy cockpit. He felt the adrenalin rush that comes with risk. It did not dawn on him that perhaps he was enjoying the rush a bit too much even for his lust for danger. Instead, he thought, There’s no turning back now. All he could think about was staying over the drafts. He was fixated on only one thing: Fulfilling his dream of soaring like a bird.
“Releasing in five seconds,” the tow pilot announced.
Joe felt an unexpected fear in the pit of his belly. “This is it,” he said to himself. “I’m on my own.”
The tow-rope disconnected, and Joe’s plane immediately dropped toward the ground. “Turn on your radar!” The cry came from Joe’s instructor on the ground. “What’s going on in your head? For God’s sake, remember your training.”
Joe switched on his radar and tuned into the ground beacons that would guide him to a smooth landing site. “Radar reading updrafts,” he shouted. “Sorry about that, Jim,” he said sheepishly into his microphone. “I guess I’ve been preoccupied lately.”
“Get with the program, Joe,” his instructor called. “A lapse like that will get you killed.”
“Okay,” Joe replied. “I’m turning to the left. I think there’s an updraft over there.”
The updraft Joe thought he’d find to his port was, indeed, there, but it seemed to catch only his left wing.
“You didn’t turn enough,” Jim called. “The draft looks to be at your eleven o’clock.”
Joe turned more to port. The plane shuddered and began to drop again. The radar was not picking up the birds well enough.
“Is your IVD turned on?” Jim shouted. “Follow the birds. You’re still only skirting the updraft. You’re losing altitude. The updrafts seem to be swirling. They are changing fast. Follow the birds.”
Joe switched on the IVD. He had not turned it on, hoping to extend his vision as long as possible. Fighting off his initial panic, Joe tried to execute Jim’s command. Spotting a flock of birds to his left and below him, he turned the plane in that direction. The draft caught his wings and pushed the plane high into the air. Joe and the entire ground crew breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps this was going to work after all.
Joe soared above the cliffs. He looked down and around, soaking in the view he had been waiting to see all his life. The ocean water sparkled far ahead. Then the cliffs moved under him. Joe watched, fascinated as he and the birds swooped first left and then right. The cliff held their place, challenging Joe to hover above their sharp rocks and crags for as long as he dared.
Joe decided to follow the birds that flew closest to the cliff’s edges. He pointed his nose downward, and his craft glided toward the precipices. In an exact imitation of his avian idles and disregarding calls from his ground crew to increase his altitude, Joe swooped toward the ocean. The rocky terrain that had preoccupied Joe’s gaze for the previous few minutes was replaced by white sandy beaches. Then gliding out over open water, Joe saw nothing but the deep blue sea beneath him.
Drifting into rapture, Joe thought, I could fly this way forever. Everything I’ve ever wanted, I have now.
Joe may have known he was slipping into an altered state of mind, but he didn’t care. He also may have realized that his time was growing short, but the knowledge didn’t seem to bother him. The radio cracked. “Joe, for heaven’s sake, turn the plane around. You’re too far out.”
Joe tried to shake himself free of the reverie, but something seemed to hold him back. “I could just fly forever,” he said into the radio. “No more worries, nothing to worry about.”
“Joe!” The command from ground control was loud and stern. “Get back here and get down. Now!”
Jim had seen the phenomenon once before. “Pilot suicide,” he gasped. “He’s going to let himself crash.”
To Jim’s relief, his friend turned the plane in a hard circle to the right. Again, to the relief of everyone on the ground, an updraft caught Joe’s wings. Then instead of a smooth ascent and without warning, the plane shot high into the sky.
G-forces pressed Joe hard against the back of his seat. His plane climbed in a high arching trajectory. Joe’s IVD showed him deep blue sky with a few puffy clouds. “So that’s what angels look like,” he mumbled.
Hearing his words and growing alarmed, the ground crew radioed to Jim from their various positions beneath Joe’s flight path, “Jim, for God’s sake, get him down!”
Jim was already on it. “Joe,” he yelled. “Are you okay? Talk to me. Joe, level off!”
The draft subsided, and Joe’s course turned into a parabola. The plane crested, and the nose pitched over. Like a hawk spotting carrion, Joe and his dream ship dove at a steep angle.
“I can’t control this,” Joe moaned into the microphone. “I think I’m finished.” He looked out his cockpit window to see the last precipice disappear below him. Only white sand dappled with occasional boulders stretched before him.
“Joe,” cried his instructor. “Why are you giving up? Try anything. Turn to the right. I see some birds over to your right. Turn to the right!”
The plane pitched hard. The right wing dropped beyond a safe angle, terminating its dip only when it pointed straight toward the ground.
An unpowered plane cannot fly this way. Its wings must present as large a profile to the updrafts as possible. Moreover, the pressure on Joe’s body grew unbearable. It took all of his strength just to hold his head upright. He felt the plane rapidly descend. Everyone in the ground crew, including Jim, began to panic.
“Joe!” Jim screamed. “Roll! Roll!”
Assuming he heard his instructions, Jim hoped Joe could return the plane’s wings to a horizontal position. He hoped that even if Joe ended up upside down, the plane would pick up enough air to stop its plummet. It was a long shot. Worse, the instructor knew desperate thoughts like these signified that his student was in a grave situation.
A long second passed. Nothing happened. Then to his horror, his friend saw Joe’s plane disappear over the cliff line. The ground crew screamed in unison. Their echoes died, and for a moment, there was silence. The next sound, a muffled thud, signified the impact.
If Joe had any last words, none of them heard. Only the birds, Joe’s kindred spirits, witnessed his final moment. Later, telemetry showed that Joe had not keyed his radio, making no final attempt to reach out to his friends. However, he did not die alone. The winged creatures who accompanied him to his end bore witness. Along with the birds, the nanobots inside Joe’s head also recorded the event.
Nanobot telemetry proved Joe right about something else. The IVD did not terminate after fifteen minutes. Fully twenty-five minutes into his flight, they gave Joe what must have been his final image. While in a rapid plummet, I somehow know he saw blue sky, white sand, several birds, the shadow of his craft, and then nothing.