Fiction: Cicero
2023 June 5

Abe Peters

     I imagine most people have a fantasy character, maybe they're Errol Flynn if they're older or Spiderman if they're younger. I have no idea who most people my age imagine they are in their going-to-sleep or driving-to-work fantasies (for those who still drive to work). For the past fifty years mine has been Dr. Abraham Peters (Abe) born in 1999 December, a naturally-gifted airplane engineer and pilot whose life is all about airplanes every which way. There are already two other stories from Abe's older years, Olympus and Test Pilot, and I'm writing a sequence of stories from his cradle to his grave.

     As I have been lucky in my own teachers in my own interests, Abe was incredibly lucky to have an amazing flight instructor, Cicero, going back to the historical Tuskegee Airmen. Unlike this story, I know nothing of their flying oddities and Natural Flight is something I made up as part of the fantasy that is Abe Peters.

     There is something of my own primary flight instructor Frank Fine in Cicero, deep roots in history and a fanatical love of flying and airplanes. Unlike Cicero, Frank actually built his airplanes. My favorite memory of Frank is the grin on his face (that I could see in the silly rearview mirror in the C150 two-seat trainer we flew) as we departed the grass strip in Colts Neck, New Jersey, on my first flight in a small airplane. As Abe kept Cicero's joy for the rest of his long life, I keep Frank's joy with me anytime I'm in or near an airplane.

     In contrast to my own usual failure in big companies and their hierarchical organizations, Abe is successful from teenage years through retirement in a single organization of a single company, the kind of big company with deep pockets and excellent people that it takes to make engines, cars, and airplanes. His relationship with his lifelong-career company is good enough that he comes back twenty-four years later for his final test flight in 2094.

 
     "Natural-Flight navigating to a landing in pitch-black darkness, not in simulation, but for real with no lights, no instruments, and no moon, is `puppy meat' compared to sitting in an airplane watching your thirteen-year-old son do it."

     2035 May 23, Wednesday, Brighton, England. Dr. Abraham Peters, head of the Flight Test Department at Arbor Industries Corporation came to his office mid-afternoon after spending a couple of hours working with the machinists in the Prototype Department reshaping a turbine blade for a light jet engine. The management at Arbor had long since given up asking why the fellow in charge of Flight Test Department was spending time in the machine shop in another department. Abe's answer wasn't evasive, nor did it satisfy. "Our company makes many things, our company makes airplanes, I fly airplanes, I test-fly airplanes, I think it's good if I can know how they're made, and I can help make them better if I work with Design and Prototype Departments." Folks around the Performance Division at Arbor figured the real reason is that Abe liked being in the shop making things and what could be cooler than making the turbine blades that he would eventually test-fly?

     Sitting in one of the two blue-plastic chairs in the office was Cicero's granddaughter April. She stood up as Abe entered and walked over to his desk, Abe stared at her lovely, slim, "chocolate" legs as long as social norms would allow, maybe a second longer, and then he looked at her face without saying anything. She also said nothing and there was a quiet moment between them as they both sat down, Abe in his chair and April on the side of his desk.

     "I could ask why you have such uncomfortable chairs in your office," April said as a way of starting their conversation. They knew each other since they were children thirty years earlier, but she had never met him anywhere other than Hammonton, New Jersey, where they grew up around airplanes, so this was her first visit to Abe's workplace.

     Abe said, "It was my decision. I don't want folks comfortable yakkity-yakking in my office, I want them spending more time in the more-useful places doing more useful work and, when possible, having more fun doing it."

     There was another moment of silence, the message was obvious to both of them, and Abe asked, "When?"

     "Gramp died Monday night." Unsaid were how much Cicero and Abe meant to each other, that Abe was far-and-away his best student, how deep and profound Cicero's flying lessons had been for Abe since he was eleven, and how strange it was going to be to live in a world without Cicero. There were no recriminations of why didn't you tell me right away because there are some things best discussed face to face, even in the cyber age of the mid-Twenty-First century.

     When Abe was eleven in 2011, there are bookkeeping advantages to being born in 1999 December as his age is always the year, his father George taught him to fly and taught him as much as he could about Natural Flight before turning him over to Cicero for the hard training. There were two reasons George Peters let Cicero teach his son Abe. First was that Cicero could do it better and second was that it was unpleasant and frustrating and he didn't want that unpleasantness and frustration be a divisive part of a father raising a pre-teen boy. It was the same reason a lot of parents don't teach their own kids to drive.

     Natural Flight is the notion that whatever sensations flying animals use to know their orientation and location, "Which way is up and which way is north" is something humans can learn. They say that learning to fly an airplane by instruments, not seeing anything out the window except grey clouds, is difficult, "the Boot Camp of flying." That's easy-peasy compared to Natural Flight because the instrument-pilot student can easily see the instrument panel. In Natural Flight the student is trying to detect and to understand subtle sensations that don't come naturally to ground-based animals, especially not to two-legged primates. Cicero explained that it's like trying to understand a lesson where the teacher's voice is so quiet it is nearly inaudible, so not only does the student have to learn something hard, he has to strain to hear what his teacher is saying. There are hours of blindfolded flying learning to tell which way is up, not by cryptic gauges on the instrument panel, but by faint and subtle inner-ear sensations and other, more-mysterious biological processes. Once the which-way-is-up phase is complete, the much-more-difficult phase of knowing location starts. The Natural-Flight student eventually can fly an airplane and land it at a specific location while blindfolded or lights-out on a moonless night.

     Cicero said it was like Luke learning to sense the force in the movie "Star Wars" where he's blindfolded and trying to defend himself against a device floating in the air and giving him shocks. Maybe nobody is giving us shocks in aviation, but the consequences of not reading nature's tea leaves in blind aviation often include a fatal crash.

     The earlier one learns Natural Flight, the better one learns it, but getting an eleven-year-old child to sit still for all of it is not an easy task. Cicero took joy twice in Abe, once that he was patient and willing to struggle to learn and again that he was incredibly good at it.

     Abe never learned Cicero's real name. He had access to resources where he could find it along with Cicero's American-Social-Security number and anything else he wanted to know. Abe decided he didn't want to know and he basked in Cicero's aura and air of mystery. Instead of "goodbye" Cicero would say "forever and always" and Abe took on this habit. When Abe asked what it meant, Cicero said he had no idea what it could mean, only that his father used to say it.

     Abe knew Cicero's father was one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, call sign Rabbit, born in 1921 so he was active during the second World War, but he never flew overseas. The thing about the Tuskegee pilots wasn't just how good they were, and they were really good pilots, but there was a strangeness in how they flew. Bob Hoover said it took a while before he figured out some of what it was. They looked in the "wrong" places when they flew. Everybody else landing an airplane looks at the runway to make sure they're on the right left-right path and the right up-down "glideslope" but the Tuskegee guys would look around for other airplanes as if they somehow knew where the runway was and knew it wasn't going anywhere, so why look at it? Sometimes Abe, Pencil, and Cicero would fly a cross-country trip at night without turning on any navigation equipment and they seemed to have an uncanny knack for finding the airport, even when the ground lights were all out.

     The Airmen called this ability Natural Flight and they said it came from nature. When asked what came from nature that they could fly like that, knowing where they were with such accuracy, they said they learned from nature. Animals that fly know where they are from sensory percepts deep within their bodies and brains and human pilots can learn these things, too. Wartime brings out greater personal risks to avoid dying in battle and the first time a Natural-Flight pilot landed without instruments at a unlit airport in the middle of a moonless night, so as not to be seen by an enemy, it was a badge of honor. It was also scary as hell.

     The closed club of airmen who knew Natural Flight realized it was something best kept relatively secret. The first obvious giveaway was not repeatedly looking at a runway while landing. Regular pilots keep checking their position relative to the landing strip, Natural-Flight pilots already know where it is and don't have to look. In the presence of non-Natural-Flight pilots it was important to glance at the airport area while landing to avoid suspicion. The other giveaway, interestingly enough, was backing a car into a parking space. Normal people keep looking to make sure they're going into the space, Natural-Flight people don't have to do that, but watching somebody park without looking is a big tell that the person has some special ability.

     Like his fellow World War II pilots Rabbit taught both his sons to fly, family call sign Cicero was born in 1943 and family call sign Marcus was born three years later in 1946. Both were exemplary pilots and both were exemplary Natural-Flight pilots. Rabbit said Natural-Flight navigating to a landing in pitch-black darkness, not in simulation, but for real with no lights, no instruments, and no moon, is "puppy meat" compared to sitting in an airplane watching your thirteen-year-old son do it.

     Cicero was almost seventy when George Peters came to him asking for flying lessons for his own pre-teen son Abe. It took about half an hour for Cicero to realize this boy was the real deal. Not only could he fly like few others, even at this young-and-tender age, but he had a desire to learn and a willingness to tough it out when he was frustrated. Cicero pushed him hard so he would learn a great deal and Abe soaked it all in.

     I'll let Cicero explain the training for Natural Flight.

     "The student pilot, first, has to learn how to fly. My father put it well, `Knowing which way is up ain't worth shit if you don't know how to use the information, if you don't know how to fly.' By `knowing how to fly' he didn't mean take-off, straight-and-level flight, and landing. He meant all the training maneuvres from steep turns and slow flight, private-pilot stuff, to lazy eights and chandelles, commercial-pilot stuff. Spin training was required when I learned to fly and I still require my students to be comfortable spinning left, spinning right, barrel rolls, and snap rolls. This is all done looking outside the airplane to get one's bearings, totally visual. In fact I encourage my students not to use their instruments to do these things.

     "Only after that, second, do I insist my student become proficient flying solely by reference to instruments. Most instructors do this by having their students wear hoods that only let them see the instruments while blocking out the windshield. With Natural Flight, I can take my students over the Atlantic Ocean on moonless nights because I can read both the instruments and my own sense. The `seat of my pants,' so to speak, senses a lot more than pilots without Natural Flight. My students learn to fly altitude and heading, they learn to recover from unusual attitudes, and they learn to do the whole range of maneuvres they learned visually except now without seeing outside the 'plane.

     "One might wonder, if I'm going to teach them to fly without sight or instruments, why I'm training them to fly instruments. One could argue that instrument flying is part of being a competent pilot and I don't want my students to fly like total bozos when they're in a flight simulator where Natural Flight doesn't help. Also, there are moments when Natural Flight fails, some kind of electrical conditions in the atmosphere, usually a few seconds before lightning. My students have to be able to get where they're going and to get down on the ground without Natural Flight because, sooner or later, they'll be flying home some cumulonimbus, pre-thunderstorm night and their ability to fly with their own inner-ear sense, whoops!, goes away and they're there without their advantage.

     "Their sight goes off when the blindfold goes on, third, they learn orientation. Getting the hang of straight-and-level flight without sight is an agonizing process. The biological signals are so faint, the struggle is real, and the student usually ends up crying at least twice. It's a Rite of Passage. Yes, Abe, as good as he was, cried a few times in his battle to glean nature's subtle signals. It can take four hours, it can take fourteen, sometimes more, and, only after that, do I have my students do totally-blind turns. That usually comes faster and doing maneuvres after that seems almost easy in comparison to the first introduction to Natural Flight.

     "It's not as hard as the initial sensory adaptation, but, fourth, learning to locate oneself isn't easy either. Learning North from South, East from West, comes first, hard enough, and then learning to detect one's location on the surface of this planet. I don't know if Natural Flight would work on the moon or Mars, if the earth's magnetic field has anything to do with it, but it works here and it works everywhere on this planet. I've used Natural Flight to find my way on all seven continents and all four oceans, even over the poles. My students learn to find their way home and, with significant practice with me in the other seat, to land without sight or instruments.

     "The last stage, fifth, is combat with Natural Flight. Having to navigate while cartwheeling sideways in a cloud is easier and faster with Natural Flight than on instruments and it keeps the pilot's focus looking outside for signs of his adversary. There's another reason for Natural Flight in combat: some academic weenie said it takes two-thirds of our brains to process our place, either visually or on instruments. Once I have my Natural-Flight attitude and position I don't have to do that part of the thinking and can devote my entire focus to battle. It makes me effectively three times smarter. My father said there were a few times where he relied on that advantage to make up for the brain cells not working because of a severe hangover from the night before.

     "Anyhow, that's my story of teaching Natural Flight. It works best when the student is young, pre-teen is best. It has been a blast teaching it."

     Cicero used his and his father's reputation and connections to take young Abe up with some luminaries including Bob Hoover and Chuck Yeager and Patty Wagstaff. Hoover realized the boy Abe had learned Natural Flight. With his usual joking he asked Cicero now that the boy flew like a Tuskegee Airman would he now have to paint his face like Al Jolson. Yeager was more pointed in his praise. To Cicero he said, "That kid scares me, and you know I don't scare easy. He's thirteen and I know I can whoop him ten out of ten, but, in three years, he's going to be a lean, mean sixteen-year-old flying machine and I don't want to run into him if we're on opposite sides of whatever battle we're fighting." He was ninety when he said that, he was still alive when Abe turned sixteen, he flew with Abe, and he repeated his message, "I'm glad I didn't run into this level of talent and skill when we were keeping score." He used the phrase "keeping score" when the loser of an air battle went down for real, not just calling it in the air like they do in drills and mock battles. Patty Wagstaff said this kid, Abe, was going to be an amazing aerobatic pilot in addition to his other skills, which turned out to be true.

     Like many boys Abe had a close circle, all the same age, whose friendship ran very deep. The closest of the group was Peter Weingard, a skinny kid nicknamed Pencil, not only as a child, but for his entire life. Just as Lesley Lawson kept her Twiggy name and twiggy frame all her life, Pencil was a skinny boy, a trim teenager, and a slender adult all his life. Abe and Pencil remained close for eight decades.

     Pencil and Abe flew together in their flight training with Cicero. Pencil didn't have anywhere near Abe's natural flight ability, but he was similarly diligent in his flight training. As the two flew together and engaged in mock-combat dogfighting, Pencil could give Abe a good workout and would win their battles about three times in twenty, more than just about anybody else. Pencil knew how Abe flew, trained vigorously, and had learned Natural Flight from Cicero as Abe had.

     When Abe was nineteen he wrote his own political opinions and prescriptions that were useful guides to himself and others. More on point for this story, as a summer intern at the Arbor Corporation, still in London back before they moved to Brighton, Abe wrote a description of a sequence of seven proposed future airplane designs going from a subsonic, tranoceanic family car-cum-airplane to a machine that would fly from Earth to Moon in six hours. He gave them alphabetically-sequential names Aero, Bullet, Crescent, Daemon, Elephant, Feather and Gryphon. Aero was a practical automobile as well as an airplane, Bullet was still usable as a car if not as comfortable as Aero, Crescent was a pure airplane, and Daemon through Gryphon were capable of space travel. Aero was sub-sonic, slower than the speed of sound, about as fast as airliners, while the others were supersonic. He had been given the dullest possible job of scheduling tests of engines. It's dull enough testing engines, but think how much duller scheduling those tests might be. So Abe wrote this memorandum.

     With his graduate-school at Cambridge his job in London, and his job in Brighton when Arbor moved there in 2030, Abe continued going back to New Jersey and flying with Pencil and Cicero. Pencil got through Columbia Medical School and practiced in Princeton Hospital, close enough that he flew quite often with Cicero.

     It is serious testimony to Abe and his designs that Aero was built in 2032 as he created it in 2019. Besides following the prescription in the memorandum Abe wrote a decade earlier, the Design Department at Arbor had Abe right down the hall in the Flight Test Department. Rather than try to impose their own vision atop the original conception of Aero, this time they kept Abe's inspiration intact. Abe once said how proud he was that, "they had the courage of my convictions." The Design Department at Arbor made some wonderful things, engines, cars, airplanes, even a couple of boats, and they were able to keep Abe's Aero design intact without getting into any big-ego wars over it. Similarly, the Prototype Department worked well with Abe and the Design Department to build the prototypes that became Aero.

     As the Arbor automobile prototypes had been labeled by colour, The Red Car, the Blue Car, et cetera. they labeled Aero's final pre-production silver-matte prototype The Grey Car, a name it kept as it was flown for nearly a century.

     2032 July 5, Monday morning, Aero had its final flight test, the one where all the bugs had been aggressively worked out and it was more of an airshow than a flight test. Abe flew that test, no surprise, it went well, also no surprise, and Arbor Aero went into production with first delivery scheduled for 2032 December. Abe used his substantial influence to wangle getting Pencil on the first-delivery list. The first five were spoken for and, on 2033 March 15, Pencil got Arbor Aero Serial Number 006 (It would have been fun to be double-oh-seven, but that, too, was spoken for by a better friend than Abe in high management at Arbor.) Abe flew Pencil's airplane "across the pond" and showed him and Cicero some tricks how to fly it. They spent a day flying Aero 006 together and the next day Pencil flew Abe back home to England in that airplane, no worries, no hassles, no issues. All was good in Airplane Paradise.

     Paying for a £2-million airplane wasn't the easiest thing for a young doctor fresh out of residency to do, but Abe also wangled an easy payment plan, as easy as nearly three million dollars can be, and Pencil managed. Since Aero was a car as well as an airplane, Pencil used this incredibly expensive and exotic airplane as his primary automobile transportation as well. (How many people take their store-bought groceries home in a three-million-dollar car?)

     During 2023 and 2024 there were weekends flying this Aero with Abe, Pencil, and Cicero, maybe every other month, while Pencil and Cicero flew Pencil's airplane far more frequently, two weekends and two or three evenings a month. Sometimes they would meet somewhere, maybe Europe, sometimes the Caribbean, once or twice Asia or Africa. Most of this flying was done in Pencil's new Aero but some of the together flying was done in the Grey Car, the Arbor-Corporation, Performance-Department prototype for Aero.

     In his twenties Abe developed an intuitive sense that an airplane should be controlled with its engines rather than its control surfaces. Clearly a single-engine airplane lacks much opportunity for engine control other than more or less power, "louder or softer" as Abe explained it in his 2019 memorandum when he was justifying the Aero design having four smaller jets rather than one or two larger engines.

     Maybe in anticipation of such engine-driven control of flight, maybe just because Abe saw and felt and understood things other "mere mortals" didn't see, feel, and comprehend, Abe came up with some aerobatic manoeuvres not already in the flight-training library. Beyond steep turns and chandelles and lazy eights, beyond split S and Immelmann turns and hammerhead stalls and such, Abe added his own kick turns, pirouettes, ladders, and shoulder rolls, not for the faint of heart. These manoeuvres worked best with more thrust than weight from multiple engines with differential thrust usable as primary method of control.

     Cicero, Abe, and Pencil had a lot of fun flying Pencil's Aero and doing aerial mock dogfights with that airplane and Abe's Grey Car. Technically Arbor Corporation owned the Grey Car, but Abe flew it like it was his own and he flew it a lot.

     There was method in the madness of Arbor letting the head of their Flight Test Department fly a prototype airplane a ridiculous amount of hours on their budget. It meant that any negative idiosyncrasies in the design or use would be found and fixed, definitely in future airplanes, but adjustments maybe retrofitted in existing production airplanes.

     Abe took that mandate seriously to heart flying across continents and oceans more than once a week. He took Mondays, Tuesdays, and, usually, Wednesday mornings off flying "wet missions" for his flying group called the Wolfpack. The Wolfpack took people places where they didn't want other people to know they were going and they often delivered stuff where their customers didn't want other people to know it was going. Abe had a vigorous business in the Cirrus airplane his father gave him, especially after father and son found some modifications to make it practical to cross oceans and continents in it, but Aero was fast enough and high enough to make it easy. When Abe wasn't flying Wolfpack missions, typically the Wednesday afternoons, Thursdays, and Fridays he was in his office, he would gather two or three work buddies after work, they would fly "across the pond" to New York City or Boston or Montréal for dinner, and they would get back to work the next morning in England.

     An autopilot made it practical to get a full night's sleep on these longer flights. Everybody denies sleeping with "George" flying the 'plane, but everybody does it sometimes. One of Abe's flying buddies adjusted the course heading while Abe was sleeping in the right seat, where he usually flew. To the amusement of the others, Abe started to shift his body in his sleep, Natural Flight keeping him on course, and then he woke up with a start and checked the instruments to see why the airplane was off course.

     When Abe flew Wolfpack missions he would occassionally be seen by military or police pilots when he didn't want to be seen and he would engage them in combat. The Grey Car was actually equipped with a ten-watt laser, not on the proposal plans but in the actual prototype Abe flew, and Abe never needed to use it. Rather he would get the military pilots to follow him and then use his superior flying skills to get them so they would go down into a body of water somewhere. He wasn't happy killing young pilots whose only crime was enlisting in their own country's aviation patrol, but he was comfortable that this kind of thing was part of their risk.

     Cicero had a picture on his desk of his boy student Abe as a young man standing next to the airplane he had brought into the world. After a year flying together, maybe a dozen weekends, Cicero said to Abe, "I feel you built this airplane for me." Abe nodded. "It just feels like I don't have to think to fly it. The oddball notion of differential thrust as a primary method of steering the 'plane instead of using the control surfaces is natural and easy in this thing, and Natural Flight makes it easy to be a warrior in it." Abe nodded again and smiled.

     Cicero took great pride that his student had come so far and had surpassed him as a pilot and as a dogfighting warrior. When they did mock battle in the sky Cicero would win maybe one in three which made it about one game in seven for him to be first to five victories so it happened occasionally in their two years flying together. Both Cicero and Abe were happy the other was a great pilot and neither gave any deliberate opportunity for the other to win. The battles were as big as their egos.

     The weekends flying together were total joy for Abe, Cicero, and Pencil. Sometimes it was two of them, sometimes all three. While they were doing dives, loops, rolls, and spins, doing chandelles, lazy-eights, Immelmann and split-S turns, and loops, doing kick turns, pirouettes, ladders, and shoulder rolls for hours in the New Jersey sky over the Pine Barrens, they were telling stories and cracking jokes. Natural Flight made it possible to look somewhere other than out the window while doing these manoeuvres so they could look at each other when they were talking.

     Cicero said all the flight-awareness in the world doesn't help if one doesn't already know how to fly. All three were extraordinary "stick-and-rudder" pilots, able to control an airplane in various modes of flight. Often one would put the airplane in a situation where it was going one direction, facing another direction, and spinning in a third direction and the other pilot had to recover to level flight while blindfolded. All three could do this easily.

     Still, Abe was clearly more than the others, more than just about anybody else in the air. He could make the Grey Car or Pencil's Aero do whatever he wanted easily and smoothly. Sequences of airborne moves that Abe found challenging were sequences of airborne moves that just about nobody else could do, and definitely not Cicero or Pencil. Like the scene with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, the student had become the master, but without the rancor aboard the Death Star.

     2035 May 13, Sunday morning, Cicero and Abe and Pencil went flying in the Grey Car, Abe's Arbor-Corporation prototype, while April was on the ground watching and keeping her grandfather Cicero company for the afternoon. Cicero had some sort of cancer, he didn't talk about it, but it was part of the picture as he was a frail ninety-two years old, not the strong, strapping man he had been, not only in his youth, but when he trained Abe around his seventieth birthday. They flew together with Cicero in the left seat and Abe in the right seat trading off manoeuvres. They did kick turns, pirouettes, ladders, and shoulder rolls that this airplane was clearly designed to do. Pencil sat in the back seat enjoying the moment. Whatever impending end of life Cicero felt didn't make the moment somber or morose. Rather it was a sense of joy where the three of them celebrated the time they spent in the sky together while April was on the ground imbued with a similar sense of celebration as she was sharing the moment, so proud of her grandfather and realizing that this might be his last time flying as he was quite ill.

     Cicero landed the Grey Car perfectly while Abe smiled. Once the runway was clear, none of them looked at the pavement ahead as he landed. As Natural-Flight pilots tend to do, they were looking around for other airplanes and to enjoy the New-Jersey scenery. Then Cicero and Pencil got out of the Grey Car and got into Pencil's Aero.

     Cicero and Abe did battle in the sky. Cicero was old and frail enough that Pencil kept him company in Pencil's airplane, and Abe stayed in the Grey Car prototype while April remained on the ground. The rules were simple going back to World-War-II dogfighting days, three seconds in firing range was a victory. There was a button that had to be held down for those three seconds to score the kill. (With another switch pressed, both airplanes were actually armed with lethal ten-watt lasers, more than enough to slice another airplane in two, but they were thoughtfully turned off with safety switches to make sure they stayed off. These lasers weren't part of the official products, but they were a good thing for some of the places these airplanes were flown on Wolfpack missions.)

     The usual distracting tricks that Natural-Flight pilots use to confuse other pilots don't work on other Natural-Flight pilots, so it came down to flying skill. Abe had a gift since he was a small boy and Cicero had taught him well, so he was the superior pilot, but his opponent was more than good enough to make his victories hard won. The game was to five wins.

     They traded off aerial-combat dogfight victories, Abe got the first round, Cicero the second, Abe the third, Cicero the fourth, Abe the fifth, Cicero the sixth, Abe the seventh for a total of four for game point.

     Cicero stayed strong for the eighth round and he did a sharp turn Abe was expecting and then he came up underneath Abe close enough that Abe had to do something to avoid an actual collision. Crashing into another airplane is only fun in the flight simulator, not so much in real life. Abe pulled up hard and realized there wasn't enough lift to get out without going ballistic enough for his wings not to fly where he would be relying only on engine power for direction. It's one thing to preach the evangel of using engines instead of control surfaces as the primary method of control, it's another thing unexpectly and entirely to give up aerodynamics in a competition. Rockets aren't known for being nimble. Abe figured Cicero was right on the edge of what his wings could handle, but there wasn't anything he could do about it in time. While Abe made the transition from lift to thrust, Cicero got his fourth kill for a score of four-to-four, sudden death.

     Pencil turned to look at Cicero and noticed blood dripping from his nose on to his shirt and sweatpants. Pencil got on the radio and said, "I'm calling the game, it's four-to-four and goes down as a tie." Abe came up next to Cicero and Pencil and he nodded. Whether he could see Cicero's bloody nose, or even his not-feeling-too-well face, he figured Cicero wasn't going to be ready for a ninth effort and, especially if this was to be his last flight, he would end on victory. Giving Cicero an easy win for the last dogfight was unacceptable for a variety of reasons, Abe landed the Grey Car and Cicero did his last landing in Pencil's double-oh-six Aero.

     When they all got out, Cicero slowly walked around to the other side of the airplane where nobody could see him bend over and puke his guts out while his nose continued to bleed. He pulled a paper towel out of his pocket and he cleaned his face and his nose, which was good enough to stop bleeding so much. No fake smile on his face, Cicero's joy was genuine as he hugged Abe and Pencil and then April, who watched the whole thing with tears from sadness and joy in her eyes. All of them knew this was Cicero's last moment, a triumpant air battle over his now-better-pilot student Abe and, somewhow, it was a moment of joy rather than sorrow.

     "I believe that's the best flying I've ever done," said Cicero. Abe and Pencil nodded. Clearly there was much flying before Abe and Pencil met him that Cicero did in his first three score and ten, but it was clearly a high point in their twenty-plus years together, maybe the high point. Cicero waxed philosophical. "When I took my cat to the vet for her final moments, I said to myself maybe the hallmark of civilization is being able to choose how we live and how we die. Nature has given me much, four score and twelve filled with loving family with great history and a career centered around good flying. I know it sounds silly, but I'm satisfied to end it with what I did today. I'm proud of my students and I'm proud of myself, forever and always."

     April drove her grandfather home, Abe and Pencil went to a restaurant for lunch and then they went their separate ways, Pencil back to Princeton and Abe back to England for work the next morning.

     2035 May 23, Wednesday afternoon, Brighton, England. April and Abe shared the moment. Funny thing, Abe hadn't thought about it, but he and April were about the same age. Flying with Cicero so much, Abe thought of April as being the young grandaughter, but he was thirty-five, she was thirty-four, and she was slim and stunning. This wasn't a romantic moment, both were happily married, really, but there was a recognition of their common generation in the look between them.

     Abe said, "Thou might realize I would love to know what he was thinking during that last battle. He did some aggressive things and, I can assure thee, in no way did I let him win or give anything to make it easier. It was a well-won victory, I was genuinely beaten, and I would love to know what was in my victor's heart and mind."

     April said nothing, smiled, and pulled a thumb-sized computer-storage stick out of her pocket.

     Abe asked, "Have thou looked at it?"

     April answered, "He asked me not to look at it, just to give it to you."

     Abe said, "I didn't ask what he asked thee."

     April winked and said, "I'll take the Fifth Amendment on that one."

     "This is England," Abe answered, "We don't have a fifth amendment here."

     Without waiting for April to answer the obvious, he walked out of the office and gestured for April to follow. They walked down the hall and down the stairs to a room that said "FLIGHT SIMULATOR" on the door. The red light was on and it was considered bad manners to interrupt a flight-training session, all the more obnoxious when it was the department head asking to take over the simulator.

     Abe pressed the TALK button and, before Abe had a chance to say anything, the voice came back, "What the fuck do you want?"

     April was a bit taken aback, Abe said, "We are casual and fun here and, after all, I'm interrupting them." Then he pushed the button again and said, "I figured ye might want to see your department head getting whooped in aerial battle."

     The haste in their concession was scary, the simulator came down into its rest immediately, and the ramp moved into place. "Are you inviting us to watch?"

     "Ye guys can have the back seat, April and I are going to watch what I presume is Cicero's last dogfight. He died a couple of days ago and this is his granddaughter April." They all got in their seats, the ramp retracted, and the simulator rose on its legs, kind of like Baba Yaga's mythical hut that danced on chicken legs.

     Cicero gave a short speech facing the camera at his desk at home. He had wiped his face clean and his nose was kind enough to have stopped bleeding for the moment. "Abe, I figured you would want to know what happened up there, I figure April's there, I told her not to watch this beforehand, and I figure she may have taken a peek anyway." The video flipped to a view from the inside of Pencil's airplane and Cicero narrated the flight, just the last battle as that was the interesting one. The full-motion-simulator information was there, so the four of them actually felt like they were flying with Pencil and Cicero and they could see Abe flying the Grey Car out the windows. As the victory-defining moment drew near, the motion stopped. "Okay, here's my game, my last harrah, hail-mary, all that stuff. If I maintain directional thrust and take my wings right to their limit with your airplane on the inside of the turn, then you won't be able to keep aerodynamic control. You'll have two choices and both of them end badly. One is you stay inside switching to one-hundred-percent thrust-driven control which is slower than control surfaces and that transition is enough for me to win. The other is you go sideways and, again, I have time you don't have. So there." The video and simulator motion came back on in real time and then in slow motion and the lag in Abe's transition of control from wing to engine was clearly enough for Cicero's win, almost leisurely long once the audience knew what was coming. After the battle sequence the motion stopped again. "Of course, if I misjudge my wing's ability to hold, then I'm going to spin down and be an easy target. In that case I have to hope that you're not going to expect it and maybe I'll have time to recover, but, as you can see, I was right in my assessment this one last time."

     Abe was sure Cicero was tempted to end with some sappy sentimental soliloquy about his life and their friendship and flying and all that, but he didn't. The simulated flying continued through Pencil calling the game and Cicero landing the airplane. He turned back to look the camera in the airplane one last time with his bloody nose and a smile on his face before he turned it off for the last time. Then the image went back to his desk at home. "I had some ideas of what I would do for the last battle and I'm going to take those with me. I don't believe in an afterlife, I've lived this one well, but if there is an afterlife, then I can tell you about it. Until then, forever and always."

     The simulator was still and silent. The two pilots in the back seat didn't say a word as there was nothing to say. April and Abe looked at each other savoring the moment. Abe flipped the SIMULATOR-DOWN switch, the ramp extended, and he guided April out so the other two could finish their work.

     Abe and April spoke not a word as they walked out of the building to the same Grey Car. Not wanting to break the silence, Abe pointed at his mouth inviting April to lunch, she nodded her head yes, and they drove to a small, quiet pub in Brighton where they broke the silence with fun stories, some about Cicero, some about other things. As before, a sorrowful event became a moment of joy.

     Abe saw April from time to time on his trips stateside and she occasionally joined Abe and Pencil for lunch, sometimes in Hammonton, sometimes in Princeton, and a few times in the city, Manhattan. A couple of times Pencil flew April to England and they spent time in London and Brighton.

     April never shared her grandfather's intense interest in flight, She worked in various businesses, but always on the ground.

     Pencil continued his medical career at Princeton Hospital with one-year temporary appointments at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. He never left the circle around his roots New Jersey for his residence, but he traveled the world in his nights and weekends with the Wolfpack. That the Wolfpack paid well didn't hurt a young man making payments on a three-million-dollar flying machine.

     Abe continued his career at Arbor for the next thirty-five years. There were six more airplanes in Abe's design paper he wrote sixteen years ago, Bullet, Crescent, Daemon, Elephant, Feather and Gryphon. For a variety of reasons they didn't come rapid fire, Bullet was test flown almost thirty years later, and Crescent almost sixty years later, when Abe came back from his retirement at age ninety-four. Daemon and Gryphon flew after Abe was gone, and the incremental steps of Elephant and Feather didn't seem necessary once Daemon flew. By the middle of the Twenty-Second Century the world was ready for personal earth-to-moon-in-six-hours transportation and the incremental steps of higher-earth-orbit mobility Elephant and Feather would offer weren't worth their development costs.

     When he was a graduate student in England Abe started a side business flying people who wanted their private business kept private. The Internet wasn't private enough, face to face is better, but buying airline tickets is all too public. Hiring a jet from Point A to Point B is a bit better, but there are still flight plans and passenger manifests. It started with one client who wanted to get from England to Uganda with discretion, then another and another, then Pencil got involved, and it became a business.

     It was called the Wolfpack and there was a community of rich and powerful people who sometimes wanted to be somewhere other people didn't know about.

     Clearly being able to fly without instruments of any kind and without lights at night was a useful skill. Add to that the Natural-Flight ability to find a totally unlit landing spot at night and the Wolfpack was a serious enterprise. As many electrical instruments have oscillators inside them that emit low-level radio energy, even a radio receiver is a risk of being detected, so the Wolfpack used their Natural-Flight skills to fly with all lights and instruments turned off. On top of that, the Cirrus Abe flew was made of composite materials that returned no primary radar image, so he was very hard to find. In later years, the Grey-Car prototype of Abe's Aero design also was resistant to detection by radar.

     The Wolfpack invested in its own worldwide communication network of spread-spectrum, high-bandwith, low power signals that were significantly harder to trace than standard radio and with transmitters and receivers that were hard to find unless an interceptor knew exactly what to look for and to listen for. It was mostly slow-speed text with occasional low-bandwith, low-quality speech, but the Wolfpack could communicate without breaching their privacy.

     Even with all that secrecy there were times Abe was detected, usually having his airplane seen flying through the sky. Making an airplane radar and instrument invisible doesn't keep a keen-eyed observer from seeing it fly across the sky.

     Early in the Wolfpack game Abe made the hard decision that every gun owner who carries his weapon has to make. When do I use my weapon and what do I do with it?

     Abe's decision was that an intercepting aircraft that showed interest in a Wolfpack flight would be brought down, at least a "wet-mission" Wolfpack flight where privacy was a top concern. It isn't a nice thing to do and most of these interceptors weren't bad people, but the cause of privacy was deemed important enough that those who interefered with it would just go away. Over his many decades of Wolfpack flights there were seventy-five occasions where Abe found himself having to defend the secrecy of his mission. These were almost all military aircraft, thirty-one had crews of two with a copilot and the other forty-four were solo-pilot patrol aircraft.

     Natural Flight made it fairly easy for a pilot with Abe's proficiency to get an unsuspecting pilot to fly into a river, lake, or ocean so he would not have to fire a weapon. He kept a ten-watt infrared laser in case he needed it, but Abe was able to get all seventy-five errant observers to fly themselves into a body of water just from disorientation. Natural Flight was a powerful tool in Abe's arsenal.

     I'll let Abe explain the Wolfpack and its commitment.

     "The Wolfpack started when I was young, getting people places they want to get to without anybody else knowing about it. At first I wasn't sure if I was on the side of the angels or devils, but I realized governments weren't the good guys, especially in Africa, and these people were trying not to be noticed by those same governments, or anybody else either.

     "Some of my clients were business people protecting free exchange of goods and services and I believe in the importance of trade, Too many bureaucrats want their piece of the action or, worse, just meddle with the wheels of commerce.

     "Other clients were outright freedom fighters. They were arming people resisting oppression. I realize it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, usually revolution is the hell of it. Too often the guys calling themselves helpers are the ones with their feet on other people's throats. I had real sources I trusted and still trust that helped me find out who were fighting for freedom and who were the tyrants. There's a group called the Puppeteers who have been on the right side openly since the American Civil War. It's a mess out there, especially in Africa. I'll point out that life, liberty, and property in Africa don't mean the same thing they mean in traditional America or even Europe. Just the ability to run a business free of payoffs, blackmail, and bribes is a victory in the Dark Continent.

     "Not all of it was waving the flags of commerce and freedom. One of my frequent clients was Kate. She was a very expensive dominatrix, she traveled a lot, she traveled well, and her privacy in her practice was held dear. There are places where so-called deviant sexual behavior is punished severely and I believe people should be able to enjoy their sins of the flesh. That involves discrete travel for Kate and her clients.

     "Now we get to the nub. The rights to life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness deserve to be defended, even with deadly force. That I protect those rights for wealthy people paying a lot of money may seem narrow and specialized, but at least the world's movers and shakers can do their business and that business provides tens of millions of jobs and feeds hundreds of millions. Those same Puppeteers encourage the Wolfpack to get the right people to the right places so other people can have what they need.

     "Having made the one-time decision that private travel is worth defending, we get to how I defend it.

     "Often Natural Flight makes it less likely I'll be spotted. I can fly down rivers and up canyons that somebody not so endowed would find too perilous to fly, especially lights-off at night. When I get to a destination, not only don't I need runway lights to land, I usually don't need a runway. I can fit the Grey Car silently into some awfully small spaces. Still, sometimes I get noticed.

     "When I realize I'm being watched or followed I make a course change and another course change to make sure I'm really being followed. After dozens of encounters I've developed a routine. I turn around and go back completely the other direction. Once they try to follow I reverse again, but at a different angle. After five or six of these switches I know which way is up and they do not to the point where we're usually inverted. I do a quick, low-altitude pull-up which is really a pull-down, they follow, I pull out quickly, and they go straight into the water. The few times that wasn't enough to get their airplanes wet I ran them in circles left and right until they were confused enough that what they thought was a left or right turn sent them to Davy Jones' locker.

     "The power of Natural Flight in this is awesome. I don't have to look my instruments or the horizon to know where I am and where I'm going, so I have my full attention on the battle at hand.

     "In case you were wondering what happens if my adversary also has Natural-Flight training, it happened on a `wet mission' in Spain. After two passes I realized she had the same gift, her responses only made sense if she also knew which way was up without looking, and I had to rely on my superior dogfighting skills to get her mixed up enough to lose control of her aircraft. Cicero taught me, once and again, then again and again, that Natural Flight is not a substitute for flying skill and he taught me that way.

     "I keep a record book. There are some helpful people out there, some in government agencies and some at the Puppeteers, who find the names of the young pilots and copilots who didn't make it home for dinner because they had the misfortune of crossing my path and being curious about me. Pencil and I gave the Angel of Death a nickname, the Man in Black, and I have come to know the Man in Black rather well. There are many who have ended more lives that I have, but going through the exercise of finding the life stories of each of them, where they came from, what they did, who they were, gave me and the Man in Black an intimacy that I believe other warriors don't have.

     "The freedom to travel without knowledge or interference is essential to engaging in commerce and commerce is the grist of economic and political freedom. There are those who perfect unbreakable codes so people can communicate unheard and unmolested and there are people like me who allow them to be where they have to be when they have to be to effect their plans. Some engage in battle, some keep businesses running, some build factories, and some bring joy.

     "I've risked my life in Wolfpack `wet missions' all my life. I'm proud of what we accomplished, both in what we did and the comfort we created for others to have the same chance to live their lives. It's one of those leverage situations in economics and politics where, yes, I'm sorry nearly one hundred drowned, but hundreds of millions really owe their lives to what the Wolfpack does."

     Abe flew his last Wolfpack wet mission in 2090, when he was ninety years old, his last kill was twelve years before that in 2078, and his total was seventy-five airplanes down and 106 pilots and crew dead. While saddened at the loss of lives, smarter, older, wiser, senior people in the Puppeteers and elsewhere felt Abe's positive contributions quite a bit greater.

     In their lives all three, Abe, April, and Pencil, savored Cicero's gifts together forever and always.

    

Today is 2024 May 23, Thursday,
14:31:24 Mountain Standard Time (MST).
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