The Transformation Story Archive Horses and Doggies and Cats, Oh my...

To Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth

by Brian Eirik Coe

Philip yawned as he sat in the uncomfortable vinyl chair in the concourse. He shuffled his carry-on bags and looks at his watch for the 15th time that hour.

"Damn, over an hour late."

The plane had been sitting at the gate since it deplaned its passengers from Orlando. Since then, there hadn't even been an announcement as to the delay. This was putting a serious cramp in Phillips highly organized life. He had his time in Providence planned down to the last minute. As it was, thanks to the fine folks at North American Airways and LAX, he'd have to shuffle around his entire morning.

He was about to get up and ream the clerk at the counter when a crisp, emotionless voice came over the intercom. "We are now boarding flight 978 to Memphis with continuing service to Providence. We apologize for the delay. We would like to start by boarding our 1st class and Diamond Club passengers now."

Philip stood and walked quickly over to the jetway. He was only a mid-level manager with Marcovian, a large manufacturer of data storage equipment, so he didn't get first class treatment. However, he spent about 25 weeks of the year out of town on various business trips, and was the member of the frequent flier programs of at least four major airlines.

The flight was crowded, much more than Philip thought it would be. He tossed his garment bag into the overhead and slumped heavily into the aisle seat. Opening his briefcase, he pulled out the presentation he had to give the next evening.

It took about thirty minutes to board the Boeing 737. The attendants closed and sealed the doors and walked up and down the aisle closing overhead compartments and checking seatbelts. Up in the cockpit, the pilots were getting ready to do their thing. Systems were checked and rechecked. With the final approval of the control tower, the aircraft backed away from the gate.

Philip didn't really hear the safety presentation that was being conducted only a few feet ahead of him. He'd been flying for 12 years and hadn't even had a blown out tire on a plane. Besides, he knew where the emergency exits were, what a seatbelt was and what use would a life jacket be between here and Memphis?

Instead, he went back to his charts and graphs. He made notes and marks on his lecture copies and cross-checked everything against the production numbers that the main office had sent down. This was going to be yet another routine assignment. Just tell the customer what the production expectations were, and make sure that he would remain loyal. No big deal. Completely routine.

"Aw, damn!", thought Philip. He reached into his briefcase and withdrew his calendar. He flipped to tomorrow's date. He grabbed a post it pad and quickly jotted //B-Day gift for Sandy//. He'd have to remember to give her a call tomorrow afternoon after she was back from kindergarten.

Philip heard a familiar sound behind his head, and noticed that the drink cart was being led down the aisle. He decided that it would be a good time to take a quick break. While he waited to be served, he glanced around at his fellow passengers. He saw another businessman chatting quietly with a younger woman across the aisle. A few rows ahead, he could hear snippets of conversation from a group of high school kids on their way to Memphis. One was standing in the aisle bobbing his head to a bright yellow Walkman. A short cry from behind him was a reminder of the infant he had caught a glimpse of when he boarded. //This could be a long flight// he thought. The flight attended handed him his small cup of coffee. He idly noticed her very large engagement ring. He glanced at her and was almost tempted to ask, but didn't feel like getting into a conversation, however brief. He just nodded his thanks and she left.

An hour later, Philip was one of the only ones left awake in his section of the plane. He had long since finished his coffee and was back to the storage projections for the next model of hard disk when a strange noise distracted him. He turned his head away from the chart and looked out the window into the night.

As it would happen, Philip was the only one to personally witness what happened next, even if he couldn't be sure what it was. Indeed, it would take the National Transportation Safety Board nearly three months to identify it. The noise that got Phillips attention was followed by a low, dull thump. The plane shuddered violently as a wave of hazy gray seemed to fly across the darkened cabin only ten rows ahead.

The lights went out, save for the terrifying glow of the wing, a sheet of flame. The oxygen masks fell from the ceiling Over the sound of roaring wind, Philip could hear the pilots struggle to regain control of the crippled aircraft. Between him and the damage to the plane, he could see a stewardess, her face mottled by blood from a scalp wound, her mouth covered by a portable oxygen bottle, vainly shout commands to the passengers.

No one could hear her, though. The only ones that were close enough to hear over the frantic sounds of an airplane crashing had been cut to ribbons by an uncontained engine explosion.

Philip slammed the top of the briefcase down, spraying documents everywhere. He bent down to grab his ankles, the classic "crash-position" he had seen in all the movies. As he looked down at the floor, he saw his calendar lying at his feet. He saw his note. A gift he would never buy.

Suddenly, he didn't want to die. It was a stupid realization, really. No one still alive on the airplane wanted to die, but it was different for Philip. He hadn't ever lived. He had married his wife because he felt that it was important for a rising corporate star to be married. The kids had been an accident, and he never really cared much for them anyway.

Until this moment.

He didn't want to be missed for a little while and then forgotten. What memories did his family have, anyway? Their memories of him consisted of flight numbers, hotel reservations and promises of gifts from other cities never fulfilled.

//Please God, don't let me die! Please!//

For a split second, Philip thought that his prayers were answered. He felt the plane seem to level off it's shallow dive. It seemed that the other engine had begun to pick up speed. He glanced up to see the stewardess still standing next to the galley, still shouting.

Then the aircraft jolted badly. The stewardess vanished in a flash of orange light.. Philip felt the plane strike the ground with a tremendous fury. He felt himself being doused with flaming jet fuel. He heard the screams of his fellow passengers over his own.

Long after the last person died, he kept living. He watched in abject terror as his flesh charcoal off of his body. He realized that his seat had completely melted in the fire, but he was still alive, and in no pain.

Philip kept waiting for his consciousness to end. He waited for his soul to leave his body, to travel through the tunnel of light that he had heard so often described. If, somehow, he had survived to this point, he didn't want to live as horribly burned as he was. That's when he saw a flash of color beneath his skin. His mind numbed by everything going on, he idly reached over and brushed away the charcoal that was his skin and muscle.

Below, he discovered a feather. A feather of indescribable beauty.

He suddenly had the urge to shake, and as he did, bits of the blackened flesh that had encased his soul for so long flew off to all parts of the carnage surrounding. In moments, Philip found himself sitting comfortably in the middle of the fire in the body of a magnificent bird.

From somewhere in his mind, the came single word //Phoenix//.

A dozen emotions raced through him at once. He felt joy at being alive at the same time he felt dispirited at the death of his humanity. He felt curious yet confused by his situation. What was he? He couldn't decide. What happened? He remembered his prayers. Perhaps this was the only way that they could be fulfilled. Could he return to his own life?

Suddenly, he looked around himself for the first time. The plane, he saw, had come down in a featureless desert. His eyes, now as sharp as an eagle, brought the carnage around him into tremendous focus. Scattered amid the twisted aluminum, and charred plastic he could make out the battered yellow tape player, it's motor still turning. He saw the blackened shoe of an infant, only a few inches long. He saw the mangled engagement ring, still around the finger of it's owner, though she was no where to be seen.

He looked around vainly for other birds, other passengers. He vainly tried to shout but only uttering a loud shriek across the Arizona desert. Surely another aboard had prayed to live? Surely others wanted to survive! Where were they? Why had he been allowed to retain the gift of life?

Or was this not the gift it seemed?

He heard a familiar sound. It was the engine of a truck. He looked into the distance and saw the headlights of a large utility truck racing to the crash scene.


"My God, Mark! Look at that!"

Mark didn't reply, only gripped the CB radio and switched it to the emergency channel. "This is Arizona Light & Power unit 15, about twenty miles south of Flagstaff. We have a major airliner down out here! Get some rescue people out here, now!"

There was a long pause as the truck continued to bound its way to the fiery oasis. "Please repeat that last call. Are you saying that a plane is down?"

"Yes, Godamnit! It's a big airliner, can't tell what kind or what airline. It's about 40 miles south of Flagstaff. Hell, the things burning so bright that you should be able to see it from town!"

"Roger that. We'll be rolling equipment out as fast as possible. Please stand by."

Mark looked over at Chris, the driver, and was about to say something when he saw Chris's eyes go wide. He slammed on the brakes. "Chris! What's your problem?" Chris just pointed out the window.

Mark followed his finger to the center of the pool of fire in front of them, now only about fifty yards away. Brightly lit in that field was a magnificent bird, a bird of indescribable beauty. It was huge, almost six or seven feet tall. For a minute, Mark thought that it was a statue that somehow survived the crashed, except that it seemed to move in the dancing light.

And it was looking straight at them.

"What the hell is that?"

As if on cue, the bird suddenly shrieked and leapt into the sky trailing streams of smoke and flame from the burning fuel. They looked after it for a long time as it disappeared into the night sky.

The radio cackled again. "This is Flagstaff dispatch to AL&P unit 15, again. Do you see any survivors?"

Mark and Chris simply kept looking out the window.

The voice on the radio repeated, "Do you see any survivors?"

Mark picked up the CB without taking his eyes off the long disappeared bird. "I don't know."

To Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth copyright 1996 by Brian Eirik Coe.

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