“They’re gaining, Tomas. We need more lift. Hurry.”
“I’m trying Irma. It’s easy to imagine more balloons but hard to make them pull us up.”
Twelve-year-old Irma Ruiz was mimicking the motions of her Papa, remembering how he drove his antediluvian Rambler, putting her hands at the ten and two o’ clock positions on the wheel to steer it. The wheel was wet because of her sweaty palms and every time she looked in the rear view mirror, she saw them getting closer.
“I’m hurrying! I’m hurrying!” Her ten-year-old brother couldn’t afford to look behind them. His head was stuck out the passenger door window looking up, concentrating on visualizing an ever-growing bouquet of helium-filled balloons, red, white, yellow, green, blue, all the colors of the rainbow. He could feel the car continue to climb but they had to go faster and higher.
“It’s happening. We’re going up. Pull harder on the wheel.”
“This isn’t an airplane. I’m not really steering. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
“Yes you can steer, remember? Just like I can do this.”
Even though he was two years younger, Irma still tended to depend on Tomas. He was always the more daring one, adventurous, defiant, and that’s what got him punished more than a few times by the school master. He was also much more confident with his powers.
She always got teased, called a “bookworm” and a “shrinking violet.” The school master never had to punish her. Irma always obeyed the rules. But what the teachers didn’t have to do, the students delighted in.
Finally Irma and Tomas had taken enough abuse. Like all of the other children, the government had removed them from their parents when routine pediatric exams revealed they possessed the “X” gene, the ability of adaptive mutation. It wasn’t evolution and they weren’t the next developmental step in the progression of humanity into a more advanced race. It was the virus, the one accidentally released from some lab a generation ago. It didn’t affect any of the people alive then, but most of the women got infected when they got pregnant. Even then, the virus didn’t do anything to the mothers, but some of their babies were changed.
Once a child was determined to be an X, they were taken by the state and put in government-run schools. The schools taught them what they’d have learned in a regular school, but it also taught them blind devotion to the state, and how to develop their powers to serve whatever the government wanted them to do.
Most of the time, the training worked and the children became powerful and obedient thralls, but every once in a while, a girl or boy like Tomas was able to resist the mind control. If it wasn’t for him, Irma, like thousands of others, would only use her special abilities for whatever purpose the state required of her.
“We’re going up but it’s getting cold, Tomas.”
“Just steer. See those clouds above and to the left. Head for them.”
Tomas could make whatever he imagined become real, but it wasn’t that simple. It required a lot of concentration and focus, and it used up as much energy as running uphill, so when he got tired, he couldn’t do it anymore until he ate and got some rest.
Irma could make things float. They called it telekinesis, moving things with her mind, but her abilities weren’t as developed as her brother’s and she had a harder time trusting herself. The balloons made Papa’s old car lighter, light enough for her to be able to steer it across the sky.
But it wouldn’t be enough. The helicopter was almost here and it could fly a lot faster than a car being lifted by circus balloons.
They’d run away from the school. Tomas set off the fire alarms in the west wing and then short circuited the electric gate on the eastern wall. Their school was only a few miles from where their old Papa used to live, and his broken down sixty-year old car was still in the garage behind his house. It hadn’t run since Tomas was in diapers, but Irma remembered Papa taking her for rides in it before he got sick.
The helicopter overflew them and then banked to the right, circling for another pass.
“It isn’t working, Tomas.”
“It’s only one helicopter.”
She risked a quick glance and saw her brother was looking out his window to the right, following the black airship’s trajectory.
It was freezing outside just below the cloud layer and Irma rolled up her window, the old hand crank making a shrill wail as she worked it. Tomas had to keep his window open and he was shivering not just from the chill, but exhaustion as well.
The government helicopter came along the car’s side just off of its right rear quarter. The fifth-grade boy saw the passenger raise a microphone to his mouth and then his words came out loudspeakers mounted beneath the aircraft.
“We don’t want to hurt you. Return your vehicle to the ground. We only want to take you back to your school. This is for your own safety.”
“We can’t go back, Tomas. You know what they’ll do to us.”
“I…know.” He was trying to catch his breath. It wasn’t really the helium-filled balloons that were keeping them up in the air, it was the power of his imagination. If he got too tired, they’d start to fall. The helicopter people might get what they wanted even though the two children hated the thought.
Tomas gripped the top of the door and stared at the airship pacing them. The car had stopped climbing and now they were drifting with the wind just under the clouds.
“Irma. Tomas. Be reasonable. You can’t get away. We don’t want to hurt you, but we’ve got our orders. Begin your descent now.”
The boy didn’t know a lot about how helicopters worked, but he did know the engine needed air to run. If those things that looked like vents at the front of the motor got plugged up, the motor would get too hot. Maybe it would stop running and they’d be the ones to fall.
“Tomas! We’re starting to go down!”
“Keep us up, Irma. You can do it. I haven’t been thinking about the balloons since the helicopter caught us.”
“Then how are we still in the air?”
She remembered how Papa steered the car, how he made it go faster and slower, working the wheel and the pedals. She could barely reach the floorboards with her feet, but what if she just had to think about it, not really run the car with her arms and legs?
“Slow down. Stop climbing. This is your last warning.”
Why were they saying to slow down? Wait. The car was going faster and it was going up into the clouds.
The children could hear a change in the sound from the helicopter. The motor was getting louder, like it wasn’t working right. Over the speakers, they could hear the man but he wasn’t talking to them, “What the hell are you…?” The voice cut off suddenly.
“I plugged up their engine. A bunch of melted balloons got stuck inside where the air gets sucked in.”
As the Rambler continued to accelerate and climb, the helicopter dropped below them.
“Get inside and roll up the window.”
Tomas did what his sister told him to do, which made this a rare occasion. Then he collapsed back in his seat as Irma continued to drive. Neither of them worried about whether or not there were enough balloons above to keep them up, or even if there were any balloons at all.
“Where are we going now?”
“I don’t know. Something in my head tells me to go the way the wind is going. We’re sailing east.”
“The border. The one some of the kids at school whispered about.”
“If we can make it across before I can’t lift the car anymore, we’ll be safe.”
“It’s just a rumor, Irma.”
“I don’t think so. It’s not something in my head telling me where to go, it’s someone. He’s like us.”
“A telepath. He says if we can get to Denver, we’ll be safe. The Midlanders don’t make their X-children slaves.”
“Good. I never want to see California again.”
They only made it as far as Grand Junction before Irma had to land the car, but the telepath (his name was Steven) had sent a truck to meet them. They’d still have to take back roads to get to Denver since the Demilitarized Zone was patrolled, but by midnight, they were among friends and family, and they were free.
Yes, of course the image reminded me of the 2009 Pixar film Up but I resisted the urge to use that movie’s themes (except for “escape,” of course). I did mine a whole bunch of other tropes about dystopian societies, mutants, manipulating and indoctrinating children to serve the state, and such.
I like happy endings, so I put one in my story and just for fun, I made everything west of the Rockies a totalitarian nation and everything in the Midwest a free state where the X-children could grow up as children and not superpowered pawns.
Okay, a balloon-powered Rambler probably couldn’t make it from California to Colorado in a reasonable amount of time, but then again, after the helicopter goes down (still over some portion of California) who knows how much longer Irma could keep the Rambler in the air or how fast she managed to make it go?