"Liberation"

by Rory O'Sullivan

The man known only as 'Turbo' flicked his eyes to the left and the right, scanning the foliage.

Oddly enough, it occurred to him that today was his birthday. He allowed himself an ironic smile. A year ago, he certainly hadn't seen himself sloshing through a small tropical jungle anytime in the future.

Interesting how things come to pass. Here he was, on what some, those who were not in his shoes, would call the ultimate adventure. Deep in the jungle on an uncharted Caribbean island, decked out in combat fatigues and the weirdest helmet this side of the Dark Ages, playing a game of the highest stakes.

How things change.

A year. Had it really been that long? He knew he should stay alert, keep his concentration sharp and focused, lest he find himself on the wrong end of one of the Regime's bayonets. But he couldn't help slipping into a bit of a reverie, assaulted by memories that seemed so distant...

...memories that spawned from that fateful day at Cape Canaveral.

Colonel John Patrick walked alone toward the capsule, head high for the benefit of the cameras. Outwardly he was calm, cool, and collected, though his innards were churning as fast as the earth was spinning. Looking back, it had been stupid, really. Another stupid act in a series of stupid acts, all for the sake of keeping a hotshot reputation that would probably kill him. But what could he do now? His hands were tied.

The year was 2011. School children around the United States were learning that today was the fiftieth anniversary of Alan Shepard's renowned journey in which he became the first American in space.

In this, the second decade of what was still called the New Millennium, interest in the space program was fading fast, as many people turned instead to the discoveries being made every day by oceanographers intent on mapping out the forty-odd percent of the oceans that remained unexplored.

So the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was plummeting into debt. They needed a gimmick to spark public interest, one to pull people's attention- and their wallets- back to the Final Frontier. The Administration's think-tanks whittled away at the problem, and finally came up with a solution. Risky though it was, it played on the nostalgia- and therefore into the hearts- of the general public. It was decided. They would recreate the voyage of Alan Shepard, in an exact duplicate of his Mercury capsule.

There was one problem with the plan. Alan Shepard's flight had been one of the riskiest ventures into space ever, even if it had been a simple "up-and-downer." This mission would be equally risky. The pilot would be denied any and all of the comforts that modern orbital technology supplied. Who the hell would volunteer for such a mission?

John Patrick let out a long sigh as he sealed himself into the capsule's tiny cockpit. He cursed himself again, cursed his ego, cursed his innate ability to cave to peer pressure no matter what the situation. Well, in the end, he just needed his luck to hold out for a few more hours, and then no one would ask anything of him again. That wasn't too much to ask, was it?

Tense seconds ticked away, a voice rattling them off in his headset. Finally, he was in the air, and accelerating upward. Gee force slammed him still further into the compact bucket seat, pressing his skin until he bore a resemblance to Winston Churchill. He thanked God, and any other deity who happened to be listening, that he'd refused the offered three course breakfast this morning. The last thing he needed was to be sick in his helmet. As far as he was concerned, a groundhog could develop claustrophobia in here.

Finally, he was through the atmosphere and into the void. It really was startlingly beautiful, humbling even, especially as his craft rotated so that he could see the earth framed neatly in the small porthole above his head. Time seemed to freeze. He was dimly aware of a voice in his earpiece, nettling him with shards of inane information and incessant questions. He muttered vague acknowledgements, utterly awe-struck. So awe-struck, in fact, that he failed to noticed a muted 'thump' as a small meteorite skidded over the capsule's surface. Finally, he shook his head. It was time to go.

As the capsule tipped toward the atmosphere, a blinking red light, followed by a persistent klaxon, caught his attention. He slid his eyes to the right, the most drastic movement his restraints would allow. "Uh, Control, uh, looks like there's a little problem with the heat shields up here."

"How much of a problem?"

Patrick checked and re-checked the gauge, sweat coursing over his brow. "Um... There aren't any."

There was a moment of stoic silence, a moment in which he was gripped with fear that he'd been cut off from human contact at what could easily be considered the worst possible moment.

Eventually, "Okay, relax, Shepard's Pie, we think we got a solution. There's a patch of interference, sort of a mini ion storm, just outside the atmosphere that's showing up on our scopes. The tech boys think that if you c'n plow your way through that, the coating should keep you insulated on the way down."

Patrick rolled his eyes. "Thanks, Control. That makes me feel safe. Shepard's Pie, going manual." He manipulated his right hand to flick a series of switches, and come to rest on the flight stick. With very subtle movements, he guided the nose of the capsule until he could see the ion patch in the window. It was basically an electrical field, blue energy bolts intertwining in a beautiful tapestry of light. These sorts of phenomena had yet to be explained, though they popped up frequently, now that which chemicals were in industrial air pollution were anybody's guess.

The air heated up fractionally as he descended, and he felt sweat break out over his entire body. As friction increased, the temperature mounted. The small thermometer in his periphery shattered in protest. In exasperation, his other hand found the throttle, and shoved it up the necessary amount of notches to reach full acceleration.

The capsule plunged into the ion patch then, and energy roared across its hull. Patrick blinked as blue light flickered through the joints in the metal, those that were supposedly air-tight, and wrapped him in a shroud of sparks. He felt his heart racing, far beyond the norm even considering the adrenaline that the situation warranted. His vision blurred, then flashed scarlet, and, as he drifted into the muddy realm of unconsciousness, he felt his hand spasm on the flight stick, and wondered just how off course he was now.

At Mission Control in Houston, the atmosphere was, if it were possible, even less serene.

Technicians screamed at each other, darting from console to console, tapping their headsets and every so often gazing at the main screen that dominated the room. It showed a radar image, the Mercury fading in and out.

"Oh God!" one tech voiced for the rest, "If he goes around the earth's curvature, we've lost him!" Feeling age descend upon him, the man plucked up a phone. "Put the Navy on alert!" The Mercury's signal blipped, and went dead. "Damn!"

He saw only black, then flecked with red, and, finally, a dull haze, as his vision came back.

Patrick sat up, suddenly aware that he was outside. The air was rich, wafting about him, as though challenging him to partake in a few greedy breaths.

He stood, shakily, and surveyed his surroundings. He was about two yards further on from the capsule, which was embedded solidly in the earth, having uprooted a handful of lush trees of one variety or another. The porthole was smashed into shards. He must've been thrown out with impact.

He inspected himself. His suit was in tatters, and his shoulder very obviously dislocated, but otherwise he was none the worse for wear. He finally managed to label his current position as in the midst of a rain forest, and he didn't like the sound of that. God knew what lay out there in the way of predators and so forth. He decided he'd better gather some rations from the capsule. He turned toward it, and-

-was suddenly standing at its side.

Confused, he scanned the terrain between the capsule and the spot he'd just been standing. There were a series of footprints, his, all the way across, but they were so light, as if his feet had barely touched the mud.

Very slowly, realisation stirred his thoughts, though the implications of what he suspected had yet to register. Testing his theory, he sprang into a run-

-and, in a matter of milliseconds, was at the opposite end of the small clearing.

Just as he'd thought. Somewhere, up there in the unexplained phenomena of space, something, more than likely the ion patch, had interacted with his bodily chemistry. He'd become... accelerated.

He decided that the next step was to go for a run.

Despite military training, John Patrick had always fought a losing battle with exercise. No more. He had never enjoyed an activity more in his admittedly short life.

He sped through the jungle, dodging, weaving through the underbrush. Animal life flashed by, as he picked up more speed. He heard a low rumble, and realised he must be approaching the sound barrier. But then abruptly, he halted, having reached the sandy shoreline.

This was amazing. Absolutely amazing. He was enthralled. He was a- practically a god. He could do anything with his new-found abilities, he'd be worshipped, he'd be an American icon, the epitome of the pace of life that he had always adored. He'd-

A gunshot rang out, and he whirled. Charging toward him was a young girl, no more than fourteen, stumbling through the sand. Close on her tail were two large, gruff-looking men in combat fatigues. They each braced rifles on their hips, firing into the sand behind the child. Eventually, as Patrick watched, unnoticed, they caught her, and threw her to the ground, laughing sadistically.

John Patrick's instincts took over in that moment. Before he knew it, he was atop the first of the girl's pursuers, pummelling him into the sand. Then, before he could quantify the time it had taken him to traverse the beach, he was rolling the second man across his back.

The girl gasped her thanks as her blur of a saviour solidified into a handsome young man. At least, he assumed it was her thanks. The language she spoke was harsh and rushed. He did his best.

"I- Yes, I- You're welcome- Uh-"

She motioned at the two fallen men, then at the forest. He thought he picked out something like the word 'regime.' So, he deduced, he was on some tropical island, in the middle of an oppressive rule or something. A sticky situation from NASA's standpoint.

From out of the forest plunged a dozen men, similarly garbed and armed, all charging at them, enraged at the sight of their vanquished comrades. Quoting to himself that "discretion is the better part of valour," Patrick swept the girl into his arms, and took off down the beach.

He ran so fast that he skimmed the surface of a small river easily, and continued into the rain forest. The soldiers, he was sure, were far behind now, and he slowed to deposit the girl.

She uttered a stream of words at him, words that might as well have fallen on deaf ears. He cringed in frustration. All the information he wanted was at arm's length. How to break through the communications barrier-?

The girl solved the problem nicely. From her waistband, she produced a notebook and cheap pencil, and scribbled a crude drawing. It was an American flag. He nodded, and smiled. So, hieroglyphics, eh? Ingenious.

He took the offered notebook, and sketched a globe, next to a question mark. She stared at the globe for a second, and finally circled the Caribbean region. Satisfied, he said slowly, pointing at himself, "John."

She smiled understanding, and murmured, "Kyaki," or something to that effect.

Well, it was a start, he admitted.

They had conversed like that, he reflected later on, for quite a while, and he had learned a great deal.

He ran now, his feet churning up vegetation, Kyaki braced in his arms. She had directed him back to her village, and it was there that he was headed, belting along the vine-strangled jungle paths.

She'd told him so much in such a short period of time, using so much paper. She'd told him how her mother had died in labor, and how she, Kyaki, had been raised by her father, the village blacksmith. How he'd taught her the legends of Toorbo, their culture's hero of old, of the daunting feudal warrior who had liberated her kind from the clutches of an evil emperor. She'd told him how a large band, an army, in fact, of exiles from a neighboring island more advanced then their own had quickly put a military regime into place, and the small drop of paradise in the Caribbean had quickly become a police state, ruled with an iron fist. She spoke- well, drew- of the injustices, the travesties, that she'd witnessed on a daily basis, of how her friends disappeared one by one into the night, whisked off to labor camps, or to play concubine to some greedy captain. The only person she had left, she confided, was her father, who was near death as it was.

As they neared the village, the acrid smell of smoke wafted past Patrick's keen nostrils. He stiffened, instantly worried. Something in the back of his mind- what his fighter pilot buddies affectionately called his "Spidey-sense,"- was on fire, pleading with him to go no further.

He stopped, set Kyaki on the ground with a hushed warning to stay put that she probably hadn't understood anyway, and continued along the path.

The jungle parted before him, out onto one of the most horrid scenes he'd ever witnessed.

The small village was being ransacked, pillaged, desecrated, by a mob of soldiers who looked much too much like they were enjoying themselves. The village's meagre collection of buildings were aflame, and women and children screamed, scurrying every which way. A bonfire, out of which rose a great pyre of what might or might not have been skeletons occupied the center of the village. Patrick looked away. Rage boiled somewhere deep in his heart, rage intertwined with compassion, a lethal combination in the heart and mind of any honorable man. He charged forward, acting first on the compassion rather than the rage.

With feverish haste, he plunged into the village's well, dropping at least fourteen feet before he connected with water. He shrugged off the staggering fall, and began spinning, twirling, shooting a great torrent upward out of the well like a bullet out of a gun. The water lashed out across the village, dousing flame in every direction. By the time he'd risen once more into the afternoon sun, the entire place was enshrouded in sickening grey smoke.

Through the haze, he spied a soldier wrestling an old man to the dirt. The old man fit the description of Kyaki's father to a 'T.' It had to be him.

The soldier roughly pinned the man's arm around behind his back, and raised his machete for the killing blow.

Up until now, John Patrick hadn't thought it possible to run faster than he'd discovered he could in the last few hours. He proved himself wrong.

The air seemed to freeze, to stand perfectly still as he swept through it. His eyes strained, burned, watered, tears oozing down his face, but he would not allow such a triviality as personal discomfort to stop him now. He plowed with one shoulder into the old man's assailant, sending him flying through the air, through a ramshackle building, into a tree beyond with a sickening crunch.

The young, would-be hero had been to late. The blade had found its mark.

He was aware, then, as he fell to his knees, of Kyaki standing just behind him. He turned, and mouthed his apologies, and for the first time, she seemed to understand. Then she went to her father, and Patrick walked away toward the jungle.

He stopped as one of the huts collapsed into his path, spewing it's sparse inventory into the mud. One of the items was a glistening stainless steel helmet that descended over the wearer's entire face, providing only eyeslits. It was intricately designed, flecked with gold and silver, priceless in any sense of the word. He reached down, and hoisted it onto his head. He would never understand why he did so. Perhaps it was an attempt to shield himself from the horror and the pain that swirled around him like a hurricane. In any event, once the helmet was in place, and the world condensed into the two eyeslits, it gave him the detachment to consider his situation, and the resolve to decide on a course of action.

He launched into the fray, tackling everyone and anyone in combat uniform. They went down flailing, most half-heartedly. He had never welcomed violence, to be sure, but putting such monsters in their places could feel nothing but right. At that point, as he neatly dispatched the nearest of the soldiers, something clicked within him. He'd found his niche. Not as Jack Patrick, hotshot pilot and space explorer cum American icon, but as an agent of justice in an unjust land. He knew then that he could never leave until his new-found work was done.

He was suddenly a commanding presence, and the soldiers scrambled away from him. He let them run. There would be time enough for retribution.

And now, a year later, he continued his quest. The shock, the horror of what he'd seen and heard that day had long since lost its edge, and allowed him to soften. He was more or less back to his own self, sense of humor and all. He'd even developed some sense of ego again. But now he was more determined. He had a mission. A goal. And as he spied a troupe of soldiers entering his line of sight, and sprang into action, he realised that he was a hero.

There was no better feeling in all the world.