THE FLIGHT OF LIU XIAN by Matt Zbrog

He stared out at the world through paneled glass. At his fingertips lay a suite of controls. Switches. Buttons. Joysticks. HUD. Chrome. Glass. Metal. All that blinking light. But Liu Xian focused on the world beyond, gazing out from the cockpit at a domed sky. He breathed in pressurized oxygen through a ribbed and rubberized tube. A voice in his right ear counted down. A voice in his left gave final instructions. And, for the last time in his life, Liu Xian did what he was told. 

He fired up the twin jet engines. Cut tether with the launch deck. Blasted forward, soaring down and then up and off the aircraft carrier’s ski jump ramp, into blue sky, rushing towards it. Behind his oxygen mask: a little grin. He powered down his comm-link. Veered off his designated flight path. Did a tiny barrel roll — just because. Then punched on towards the horizon and its afternoon sun. 

He would bring the world closer to him. 

*

Not all that long ago, he’d taken an oath: 

I am a member of the People’s Liberation Army. I promise that I will follow the leadership of the Communist Party of China, serve the people wholeheartedly, obey orders, strictly observe discipline, fear no sacrifice… blah, blah… and under no circumstances will I betray the Motherland or desert the army. 

Well, Liu Xian thought, so much for all of that. 

*

She’d married someone else. If there were any reason for this egregious and drastic course of action he’d taken, it was that. Not that Liu Xian had ever held any illusions of marrying Mai himself. No. From those first days at the civilian college, he’d known she was destined for greater things than a military-bound farm boy from Xinjiang. She’d been to Paris. Spoke French and English. Wrote poetry. Dearest Mai. Still. She’d treated Liu Xian as if he were an equal. Smiled at him, without shame. No one could deny she was brave. There was that picture she’d given him, in secret. They’d argued about what it’d meant, in whispers. If anyone had ever found out – well, they didn’t. And who’s to say it mattered anymore? Even though he hadn’t seen her in years, even though he’d long ago burned that picture, its resonant image now flickered in his mind as he flipped on the afterburner: a man, in front of a tank, in Tiananmen. 

*

Cruising at 2,100 kilometers per hour, Liu Xian felt something akin to vertigo, a sensation he’d only read about before, but never felt. He attributed this new feeling to his lack of any immediate plan. It was new psychic territory for Liu Xian, the man of the memorized oath, the man of groupthink, the man of math and plotted trajectories. So much order and obedience and for what? Something pinned to his chest, near the heart? One day flying for the August 1st Aerobatic Display Team, a role in which his precise non-deviation could have been a source of entertainment for drunken crowds during Tet? 

It seemed strange to him now that he’d been fine with such a destiny for so long. But for so long he’d had Mai. Or rather the idea of Mai. The enduring symbol. The quiet hero. The source of a type of hope that one might feel for one’s children. She’d existed in a pure and independent state. Untethered from a system Liu had felt powerless against, even as he’d helped perpetuate it. She’d wielded both the power and pedigree to bring about a new future. A change. Was that naïve to think? Even though it flew counter to his own life trajectory, he felt it’d been her duty to remain that contrarian beacon. She’d owed that to herself. To Liu Xian. To the vast and evolving country they called home. To the children of the coming century. But she’d broken that silent promise. She’d married someone else. And not just any someone else. A politician.

Fuck, Liu Xian said, in English, out loud, to no one but himself. 

He tilted the joystick and rocketed towards Taiwan. 

*

Most of the English Liu Xian knew, he knew from Mai, from unofficial study sessions in her private room at the civilian college. Hello. Please. I love you. Yes. Fuck. But when she’d tried to teach him the word democracy – she fell into a laughing fit. Perhaps it was the way he’d pronounced it, his northwest accent mangling the letter R. Perhaps it was the way he’d repeated and repeated the word, fruitlessly attempting to grasp its proper sound. Perhaps it was all these things, the absurd context of it all. But she laughed, and couldn’t stop, turning her pale cheeks bright red. And it made Liu Xian feel embarrassed, poor, dumb, mad, and exactly like the farm boy from the Northwest that he was. So he stood up and shouted. Scolded her in Beijing-dialect Mandarin. Forget her precious Cantonese. Forget her Anglo affectations. He told her what that funny word of hers really meant. What it cost. What it wrought. He lectured her with textbook rhetoric. With a guffaw: democracy. He called her nasty names. He mocked her tears. And, still, she begged him to forgive her. He laughed at that, and it made him feel strong. Then he left. He hadn’t seen her since.

Now, at nearly 10,000 meters up, Liu Xian wept. 

*

The blue sky hardly seemed to move, even at such speed. The horizon, never nearing. The sun, slowly setting. The enveloping roar of twin jagged-nozzle engines washed out the world. There didn’t seem enough time to change anything. He was a traitor now. A refugee from an old way of living. Where else to go but into the arms of the perceived enemy, to a different vision of the same homeland?

Is this what Mai felt, he wondered—then pushed the thought away.

Perhaps he could prepare some sort of statement. Something to say upon arrival in his new land. Words that could one day be chiseled beneath a statue of, yes, him. The hero. The rogue. The brave Liu Xian. Perhaps the statement could even be made in English. He’d taught himself a little more in those lonely intervening years. Mostly short phrases he could use as playful barbs if ever he saw her again. There’s only one China, my dear Mai, he could’ve said. Yes. The irony, the wit, the new Liu Xian, the master of pronunciation and complex linguistic sentiment. Would that line have impressed her, made her laugh, been apology enough?

But as he entered Taiwanese airspace, the only English that came to mind, for some reason, was a jingle he’d taught himself as a way to practice his pronunciation, a jingle he’d whispered to himself over and over, late into the hot nights of the barracks at flight school, never knowing for certain what all the words meant but repeating them all the same, under his breath: Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese, pickles onions, on a sesame seed bun. 

*

It took him by surprise when the Taiwanese opened fire. It shouldn’t have, but it did. New psychic territory. And, as his strange and half-made plan disintegrated, his old training and reflex kicked back in to fill the vacuum. The fruits of past obedience manifested in action, and they did the thinking for him. Obedience, training, reflex, yes, but something else, something older – an ancient muscle stretching itself. 

He evaded his pursuers. Re-engaged his aircraft’s stealth. Ran quick diagnostics. The damage was real. But he still had fuel left. A slight bleed, yes, but enough to get away. He lit up his HUD, only for a moment, to keep his radar signature minimal. He watched himself lay in a course for Kiribati, a sparsely inhabited archipelago several thousand kilometers to the east. He wasn’t sure exactly why he’d picked it. He knew little about it. Better options, more practical options, existed. But instinct had decided. He went with it.

Perhaps the symbolism was all that mattered. The resonant image therein. If only for something for himself to hold onto. Kiribati. The last land mass this side of the International Date Line. He was headed for the future. 

*

There wasn’t much left to do in that final leg of Liu Xian’s trip. Nothing to do but watch the clouds fly past as he thought back on old decisions. He hadn’t made a whole lot of decisions in his 25 years. 

Perhaps that’s why his mind flew all the way back to Xinjiang Province, that ‘New Frontier’ where, when he was nine years old, he’d attended his first day of a new school. Dust on the classroom floor. The air smelling of animals and manure. The teacher read off roll call, and Liu Xian learned he was seated both in front of and behind students also named Liu Xian. In retrospect, it wasn’t that unusual. There were a quarter million Liu Xians in the country. But he didn’t know that then. Liu Xian, the teacher said. Liu Xian. Liu Xian.

Liu Xian pushed himself away from the desk. He stood up. And then he ran. 

Out of the classroom. Into the field, where the wheat stalks rose high above his head. He couldn’t, then, have told you why he ran – and maybe couldn’t still – but he ran, and he ran. It was a command from somewhere on high in a time when he wasn’t allowed to believe in anything on high. It was a command he obeyed at full speed, with heaving breath. And when he reached the far side of the field, he hopped atop the saddled horse that stood there. He untied its reins from that crooked fence. He couldn’t have told you the breed of the horse, but he definitely knew how to ride. It was easy. You trust the horse. Trust the huffing and hot-blooded mass of muscle and limbs that sit below you. Direct the speed and vector from above. Meld will with power. Harness the language and kinetics of instinct.

So off he went. With a click of his heels. He hadn’t known where he was going. 

And here he was, running—flying—still.

*

Nothing lies near Kiribati. It’s surrounded by a vast expanse of deep blue. Somewhere out there over the Pacific, after the sun had set, a warning light blinked on in Liu Xian’s aircraft. He’d run out of fuel. He couldn’t turn back. He kept going until the engines made their last sputtering breaths. Then he took his hands off the controls, and, in his final, roaring, flaming, smoking, screeching descent, he ripped off his oxygen mask and screamed and into the cockpit’s black box: There is only one Liu Xian!

He hit eject. 

Liu Xian floated in space. Through a sky full of stars. The air – cold and clean. A dream-like fall. He splashed down into the twinkling sea. Training kicked in and cut his parachute lines for him. But it was a youthful instinct that made him start swimming. 

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