by Robert Earle
When he was four, Josh saw a clown launched from a cannon. Nothing, not the women standing on horses’ backs, the lion tamer, or the acrobats, fascinated him like that clown. He wanted to talk about it all the way home: how they did that, what it felt like, how they knew the clown would land in the blue pillows.
His mother, Lucille, whose boyfriend had disappeared the day before Josh was born, said the circus was a kind of world in miniature and reverse. No one dressed that way outside the yellow and red tent, no one had a lion instead of a cat, and if it were a real cannon, the clown would burst through the tent’s walls.
“Things happen in circuses that don’t happen anywhere else. That’s the fun of it.”
* * *
The clown-shot in Josh’s mind eventually occurred for real in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) meeting. The challenge was to activate an electric fence when a person came within ten feet of the U.S.-Mexico border but not so strong that it would injure anyone. The State Department representative worried this would violate Mexican sovereignty.
An ICE manager said to the man from State, “Their problem is that they think no one should be denied the right to leave Mexico, correct?”
“Correct,” the man from State said.
“That’s a load of crap,” the ICE man said.
Josh, an electrical engineer, half-listened as the blah-blah-blah went on. He doodled a cartoon panel of a cannon with a man in it and then a second panel where the man had been launched back into Mexico and then a third panel where the man landed with a parachute.
There couldn’t be explosives. There couldn’t be trajectories above tolerable oxygen and temperature levels. And there had to be safe landings, which meant not on highways or in forests where the parachute might snag.
The clown had been ejected by springs. Springs wouldn’t work, but springs might be implanted in suits the deportees would wear to protect their legs on landing. And the suits would require variable wings for altitude, velocity and direction control.
Josh focused on the rail-gun concept: electromagnetic propulsion. Shoot people home.
He made his presentation to the next inter-agency group.
“First, savings: Expenses would be reduced to apprehension, launch site transport, bubblewrapping with built-in wings, spring booties, parachute, and high energy discharges toward uninhabited beaches.”
A colonel asked, “G-force effects?”
“Mitigated by trajectory. The lower, the slower.”
The State man asked, “How far?”
Josh said, “Costa Rica if you want. We can hit speeds up to 500 mph and soft landings within 15 feet of target.”
“What if someone seeks asylum?” a Justice lawyer asked.
“We aren’t in a listening mode,” Josh said. “We’re out there in the sage and scrub enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, not adjudicating conditions elsewhere.”
“What if someone is ill?” the NSC rep asked.
“We’d put up field hospitals to get people in shape for their flight home.”
“Only as far as Costa Rica?” an ICE manager asked.
“That’s about it. They’d freeze if we shot them higher and farther. Deep into Mexico is probably good enough, isn’t it?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” the ICE manager growled.
* * *
The Republican-controlled Congress liked the hell out of the idea. The sometimes-Democrat president saw an opportunity to keep the focus on undocumented individuals already in the U.S. rather than continuously being pestered with fencing and personnel proposals that would cost tens of billions.
The first returnees hit beaches on the west coast of Mexico. Dozens of red, white and blue parachutes appeared over sites chosen for proximity to towns where they could seek refuge. Prior to launch, the returnees simply were walked through a chamber that bubbled them into their suits and then slipped into twenty-unit propulsion tubes. Then whoosh, off they soared, appearing hours later like a bouquet twirling in the sunlight.
Crowds gathered. Some called the returnees angels, messengers from God. They were lovingly unwrapped and given shelter. Nonetheless, the Mexican government took the issue to the U.N. where the U.S. vetoed a resolution banning electromagnetic propulsion of undocumented immigrants.
Before long, tens of thousands of returnees were soaring past Mexico and hitting the beaches of Central and South America.
One of the pleasures of the job was its silence. Electromagnetic propulsion technology — or EMPTY as it came to be known — was silent, but of course ICE personnel also wore protective ear gear so they wouldn’t hear asylum pleas. This doubled the silence.
Were there accidents and lawsuits and so forth? Inevitably, but not over U.S. territory and not affecting U.S. citizens.
Great Britain bought EMPTY units. Likewise France. Both countries zipped thousands of sneak-ins back to Africa and the Middle East. The French liked doing this with mobile truck arrays, providing civilized service in conformity with their social democratic philosophy. The Brits emulated the Americans and set up fixed launch sites, which were more cost-effective.
* * *
International flight conventions came into play. The Spanish denied air space to returnees destined for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The French and British said this violated the returnees’ human rights, obstructing return to their homelands. The EU Commission overruled the Spanish. The Spanish government fell. Its successor went EMPTY. No-brainer.
The Russians developed EMPTY variants to evict anti-Moscow rebels from Eastern Ukraine. The original Ukrainian Revolution had been the Orange Revolution, so the Russians used orange parachutes en route to Kiev.
Japanese EMPTY devices were the best, because their return-to-sender Nigerian program entailed 16 airborne hours, requiring the Japanese to incorporate rice cakes and green tea into their insulated flight suits.
The U.S. solved its Asian immigrant problem with landing/propulsion platforms anchored across the Pacific. Back went the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodians, all done via international waters and air space. Perfectly legal.
A meeting in Geneva tried to conform EMPTY procedures with previously negotiated movement-of-people conventions. Pakistan, North Korea, China, and Iran boycotted the meeting, while Denmark advanced a unique agenda.
Many Danes wanted to travel to Mediterranean landing zones during the gloomy Danish winters via EMPTY launches. The Danish government hailed psychological and spiritual benefits. Psychologically, a person could be cured of Seasonal Affective Disorder. In no time, a gloomy Dane could be on the sunny Costa Brava. Spiritually, Danes could experience the “churchliness” of the heavens, making Søren Kierkergaard’s “leap of faith” a reality.
Social scientists confirmed that EMPTY returnees seemed invigorated, almost reborn. The first minutes of flight were bewildering, but soon euphoria took over. That’s why the Danes called the undocumented immigrant focus narrow-minded. They insisted on reframing the talks around commercially-based “cloud tourism.”
The Danish position got traction, especially in California. This proved lucrative for Hawaii. On any given day, four to five thousand Californians had themselves propelled to Waikiki. New suits were developed, including GPS and Internet. A Californian in flight also had access to two glasses of wine through a tube and a selection of cheeses and crackers.
Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and China had their reasons for boycotting the Geneva conclave. Their motives gave EMPTY a nasty twist.
Pakistan began launching soldiers into Kashmir, overshooting Indian front lines and setting up bases of infiltration. A mustachioed New York Times columnist referred to the Pakistani program as generating “weapons-grade humanity.”
This pungent phrasing caught on. Next, Iran began using EMPTY units to launch Republican Guards over Bagdad, straight into Anbar Province, to push out Sunni Islamists.
Emulating Iran, Hamas began launching partisans into Israel. These streaking Gazans were difficult to shoot down. Worse, they wore suicide bomb vests and parachuted onto properties their grandparents had owned prior to 1948. They threatened to blow up whatever they were not allowed to repossess.
China found enormous economies of scale via EMPTY launches into Tibet and across the straits of Taiwan. However, China rejected the term “weapons-grade humanity,” insisting that its airborne emissaries never carried weapons. It was a lie but difficult to disprove.
North Korea claimed to have the EMPTY capability to leapfrog the DMZ and repopulate South Korea with its thin, flightworthy citizens. North Korea’s claim was dubious; it lacked the electrical power necessary to propel anyone more than two miles.
To protect U.S. troops in South Korea, the U.S. Army developed an EMPTY Resistance Corps (ERC) capable of intercepting incoming hostile parachuters with outgoing friendly parachuters who could down the baddies with assault rifles in old-fashioned air-to-air combat. No such dogfights ever happened, but making it into the ERC was still a feather in a bird-fighter’s cap.
* * *
In talks or interviews, Josh sometimes recounted his childhood inspiration and cited his mother’s comment that a circus is a kind of reverse world in miniature. People in the real world can’t mess with lions, they can’t stand on the backs of galloping horses, and they can’t fly at five thousand feet all by themselves.
Josh was making the point that the weaponization of humanity troubled him. Israel now was launching air commandos to thwart the Palestinians; India had endless human weapons who could destroy inbound Pakistanis by one-on-one collisions, obviating the need for costly bullets.
He added reports of airborne drug smugglers landing everywhere from Colorado to Arkansas to Virginia. The Drug Enforcement Agency developed a counter-cadre nicknamed the Anti-Cocaine Cowboys with high-altitude lasso capabilities. Not easy work, though. How do you distinguish between drug smugglers and Californians joy-flying inland instead of taking the Pacific route to Hawaii?
Josh often visited his mother to discuss these developments. He left his wife at home because she hated the way they chatted together, soul mate to soul mate. They were so ruminative, so abstract, so “circus-minded.” A theme Lucille liked to explore was the paradox that when you magnified a comedy into a cosmos, you created a circus that should be fun but wasn’t.
“EMPTY ought to be a force for good and peace, not evil and violence,” she insisted.
Josh agreed. “But now the Security Council wants to ban EMPTY, and the President says the U.S. might get on board: multilateral disairament he calls it. I don’t get it. Humanity has always wanted to fly. Everyone dreams about it. Why does every good thing have to have a weaponized flip side?”
Lucille really didn’t know. She wasn’t a philosopher, a politician, a cop, or a criminal. Her experience with electromagnetic propulsion technology was limited, having been launched three times to Hawaii, once to Vancouver Island, once to Disneyland, and once to Nantucket.
She was sixty-one and remained single. Throughout her life, she had felt oppressed and confused like everyone else. Josh’s being rich helped, but the only times she had felt utterly liberated were during those astonishing flights. The crud of life vanished. She had a “This can’t be!” sensation followed by a “I can’t believe this!” sensation, and an “I can’t wait to tell people about this!” sensation.
Her baby Josh had invented pure human flight; he had transformed a circus act into suprahuman transcendence that was nothing at all like looking down at beautiful golden cloud banks from an airplane. It was actually hurtling through those clouds, letting storms rinse her clean before penetrating the thrilling nothingness of blue infinity.
She said to Josh, “Somehow a good person will find good things in life, and a bad person will find bad things. Borders dividing our ground from someone else’s ground literally soils some people. What they want is to conquer, claim, and even abuse it. Those bad people will turn grace into damnation.
“Even the enlightenment they experience when they first are launched curdles and spoils inside them, and they remember what they hate more than what they love. I know I’m moralizing, but if you can’t believe a sky full of billowing color is bringing you good things, you probably don’t deserve to be there. And we humans probably don’t. Somehow, we turn everything magical into misery.”
Josh had analyzed many proposals to limit EMPTY to recreational flight and legitimate commerce, abandoning the immigration, law enforcement and national security missions. But he didn’t know how to get something like that through the world’s high councils. Basically, he was still a kid at the circus, not the arbiter of human salvation.
“Maybe there’s no way to regulate this particular technology because it’s so wedded to human nature,” he said.
Lucille said, “That would be so sad. When you give your talks, you should try to make people rethink trashing the circus you’ve given them.”
“I haven’t been getting many requests for interviews and speeches lately. The debate’s kind of past me.”
“Do you have any other ideas from when we went to the zoo or museums?”
“Sure, but maybe I should just go to ground for a while before I spring something new. What do you think?”
Lucille reached across the kitchen table and took his hand. What had he seen and thought about when he was looking at crocodiles and gems and dinosaur skeletons? He might have had a wonderful insight just sitting in a football stadium and thinking about beehives. But covering his manly hand with her age-spotted hand still gave her a forever feeling. Not having any new answers didn’t bother her. He was the only answer she had ever had to begin with.
Copyright © 2016 by Robert Earle