Danser avec les etoiles dans la nuit
The man sat on the rough, black asphalt, in the sliver of shade afforded by the little jet’s wing, wondering how much longer he’d have to wait for the fuel truck to arrive. It felt oppressively hot outside, and very humid, though the sun was about to set. He looked at the hills surrounding this impossibly tiny airstrip and wondered what, exactly, was making his hair stand on end. And why the sensation felt so – familiar?
The Dassault Falcon 20 had once belonged to FedEx, and though it was painted slate gray now, it still had the cargo door the courier service had originally specified. The cockpit was steam-gauge city, though there was a GPS receiver and an RNAV interface that fed, somehow, into the ancient Bendix flight director – so the jet’s pilots could get into, and out of, some very unlikely airports. This little hole in the wall was one of them, too.
The jet belonged to an outfit registered in Miami, to a company that did the majority of it’s business with the CIA, and the pilot had flown for the company for years. He liked the no-nonsense approach to flying, and to life, that working for the company afforded, but he did not like airports like this one. They were a little too far off the road less traveled for his comfort, and maybe that was why he felt so uneasy.
It was called Los Comandos, or more accurately Port lotniczy Los Comandos, and the airstrip was located about a mile due west of the village of Lolotiquillo, in eastern El Salvador, and as Nicaragua was not that far away, Los Comandos was a favorite location to pick up and drop off certain types of “packages” the company needed delivered.
He heard a truck approaching; saw a white Toyota Land Cruiser coming down the road to his right, with two more following, and he relaxed. That would be the Special Forces types working the area, he thought, and they pulled beyond the Falcon and stopped under some shade trees. He watched his co-pilot get out of the lead Toyota, and the driver got out too, and both walked over to the jet. The driver handed him an ice cold Coke, then sat down on the asphalt under the wing.
“What’s the word?” the pilot asked his co-pilot, a raw bundle of nerves he knew only by her first name: June. She was cute. She was sexy. And she was available. And he wondered why he hadn’t made a move on her yet? Don’t shit where you eat? Was it as simple as that?
“Situation Normal, All Fucked Up,” she sighed. “The truck went to Delta Baker. It should be here soon, less than a half hour, anyway.”
“Sorry, Amigo,” the other man said, “my fault. I shoulda confirmed.”
“No big,” the pilot said. His name was Rob Jeffries, and he looked at June, saw sweat had already soaked through her white shirt and he shook his head.
The other man, Captain Dale Knight, USMC, looked around the hills, shook his head. “Something don’t feel right, Amigo,” he said, staring at a hillside perhaps a kilometer away.
“I know,” Jeffries said. “The hair on the back of my neck has been on end since my feet hit the ground.”
“Over there,” Knight said, pointing at the hillside. “Something doesn’t belong – looks outta place. That hill look different to you?”
June turned and looked at the hill; she’d flown into Los Comandos a few times, maybe not enough to know the terrain as well as these two, but she looked anyway. The land looked a little like her native New Mexico: rolling, scrub-covered hills, a few small mountains in the distance, the only difference was the forest, which seemed almost arboreal compared to the ones back home. These forests were alive, full of large cats and mean snakes, and she didn’t feel comfortable walking around down here – at all.
Knight went over to his Land Cruiser and pulled out some binoculars and walked back to the Falcon; he swept the hillside then handed them to Jeffries. “What do you think, Rob?”
“Kind of a metallic shimmer – weird. Must be a couple of hundred yards across.”
“When are the spooks due?”
Jeffries looked at his watch, shook his head: “About a half hour, maybe less.”
“Think I’ll send a platoon over there, see what’s up.”
Jeffries shook his head. “Too big to be anything – covert. My guess is it’s an optical illusion of some sort, something to do with this humidity.”
Knight shook his head, walked to the second Toyota. He pointed out the illusion and explained what he wanted, and that Land Cruiser took off, drove away from the hill. Jeffries knew that several hundred Marines were staged in the area, usually conducting quiet little walks into northern Nicaragua, sometimes Honduras, but he knew Knight was a cool operator – conservative, not into taking chances or letting someone crawl up his rear.
Knight went back to his Toyota and got on the radio. “Baker x-ray, where’s that fuel truck.”
“About five out,” came the reply.
He walked back to the Falcon. “I’d like you guys to beat feet real quick.”
Jeffries nodded, looked at the hill, then at the Falcon. “Me three.”
“Gas is about here.”
Jeffries heard the radio in the cockpit and dashed over the open cargo door and picked up the hand unit he’d left there, just out of the sun.
“Say again, Ranger two-two, this is Echo echo. Come in.”
“Echo echo. Go,” Jeffries said.
“We’re about five out, got some 25s, repeat 3 times 2-5, over.”
“Got it, out.” Jeffries sighed, then turned to Knight. “They’ve got three wounded,” then he turned to his co-pilot. “Turn on the GPU, let’s get the a/c on – and ready to get the fuck out of here.” He turned, looked at the sun setting behind the shimmering hillside, shrugged his shoulders – and felt something unsettling – almost like an echo.
“Right,” she said, then walking over to the ground power unit, she turned on the generator, then turned power on to the Falcon; once power was steady she walked to the little ladder and disappeared into the cockpit. The fuel truck appeared and Marines got out of the Land Cruisers and refueled the Falcon, then one of the Marines hooked up the compressor and called out “Okay to start two” to the co-pilot leaning out her window.
“Time to go do some of that pilot shit,” Jeffries said to Knight. “Seeya next time.”
“You going to TNT?”
“Good. I’d hate to have to come get your ass in Mexico.”
Rob laughed. “And how’s that little gal in Aquas Calientes?”
It was an old joke, and they both laughed.
Two Marine UH-1Y Venoms settled on the road and medics carried three stretchers to the Falcon, and two men in black fatigues walked over and talked to Knight while Jeffries climbed up onto the deck; he helped get the wounded strapped down then went into the cockpit.
“How’s the pressure on two?”
“Good. Steady. Good ratios, too.”
“Merida on the GPS?”
“Good girl.” He went aft, saw the wounded had IVs hanging already and a medic the two ‘men’ in black fatigues were both on board, though he saw now that one of them was a woman. He closed the cargo door and set the cross checks, then he turned to the closest spook. “Anything I need to know about?”
The woman turned to him, shook her head. “About two hours, right?”
“Thereabouts, closer to three. What about them?” Jeffries said, pointing at the wounded. “Bad?”
“Medic got the bullets out, sewed ‘em up. They’re stable.”
“I can go into Homestead, maybe MacDill, if it’s an emergency.”
“I’ll let you know.”
“K. Y’all better buckle up. We’ll be scootin’ in a minute.”
He went forward, left the door open to help the air conditioning catch up, and they finished with the checklist. “Gimme flaps ten,” he said.
“What’s Gomer Pyle say? All them trucks and shit out of the way?”
“Clear to taxi,” she groaned, hated when he talked like a hick.
“Roger-dodger,” Jeffries sighed. Her kicked the rudder over, slaved the nose-wheel and turned hard to the left, then taxied out the runway and made a u-turn at the end. He did his best to line up on the center of the unmarked asphalt strip then ran up the engines to full throttle and watched the gauges, then let off the brakes. The Falcon lurched once, then screamed down the runway – and when they cleared the trees he cleaned the wing – then Jeffries banked slightly and flew over the shimmering hill.
“What’s it look like,” June said, craning her head to see.
“Like a dome, made out of pure energy.”
“You got a course for Merida worked out yet?”
“Man, I wish we had flight attendants on these crates,” she said.
“Yeah? What do you want?”
“A long, tall Texan with a really big dick.”
“Jesus, girl, when’s the last time you got laid?”
“When’s the last time you fucked me?”
“I seem to recall we ain’t done it yet.”
“Yup. It’s been that long.”
They both laughed
“Beagle two,” Knight said. “Sitrep.”
“Nothin’ here, Beagle. I mean – nada.”
Knight looked at the hillside, shook his head. As soon as the Falcon took off, the shimmering stopped, and he was going to get on the radio and tell Jeffries – but for some reason he decided it wasn’t important.
The Falcon’s course – 0-5-7 degrees – took then directly over the Dry Tortugas, and he flipped the transponder to 5999 and squawked ident, effectively telling ATC the Falcon was a ‘dark flight’ and to keep traffic out of their way. Jeffries started their descent to 1800 MSL, and made their only radio contact with ATC as the passed just northwest of Key West.
“Casper two niner Echo, 1800, STING to DEEDS, 2-5-0 knots.”
“Niner Echo, clear direct to JAXEK, VFR runway 0-9, two niner niner five, wind seven at zero seven five degrees. There’s been some unidentified traffic near Everglades City, but the Navy was unable to find anything. Y’all have a good night.”
“Sounds good to me,” he whispered, his ass on fire after sitting still for almost three hours. “Man, I could use a…”
“A blowjob?” June said, hopefully – he thought.
“I was going to say a hot shower, but yeah, a B-J wouldn’t be too bad right about now. Know anyone I can call?”
“Fuck you,” she said, laughing.
“I wouldn’t mind getting laid tonight, too,” they heard a voice say, and both turned to see the female spook standing in the cockpit door, grinning. “Any volunteers?”
Jeffries thought she looked a little like the pilot in Goldfinger, only meaner, and he turned back to his instruments. “I dunno, June. You swing that way? Feel like munching some rug tonight?”
“No thanks. Tryin’ to quit.”
“Ah,” he said, then he turned back to the spy. “Guess you’re stuck with me, darlin’.”
“You got a big dick?”
“I dunno. How big’s big enough?”
“I need a fuckin’ big one. Ten inches minimum. Twelve would be better.”
“Sorry, darlin’ – you be flat outta luck tonight. Gimme flaps ten, June.” He turned to the spook and winked. “Y’all better buckle up now. We’ll be on the ground in a couple.”
“108.3 – check.”
“Gimme flaps twenty.”
“Twenty. Passing JAXEK, begin descent.”
“Got it.” He started whistling, nothing in particular, as he worked the throttles and the rudder pedals. “Flaps thirty, gears down,” he said, looking quickly at the localizer, then the airspeed. “Gimme forty.”
“Forty and three green.”
He slipped the throttles to idle over the threshold and the Falcon eased onto the runway; he let her speed bleed before he started braking, then he turned off about halfway down the long runway and taxied over to a Gulfstream IV on the ramp.
“Leave two at idle,” he said as he went aft, and he opened the cargo door, letting warm, muggy air flood into the cabin. Another UH-1Y settled onto the ramp and more medics jumped out and ran to the Falcon and hopped aboard, and Jeffries went back into the cockpit. “How’s our fuel?”
“About a thousand pounds.”
“Okay. Let’s shut her down.”
They walked over to the little, closed terminal building and got in his car, a ten year old BMW 325 coupe, and he started it up, let the engine warm for a half minute while he dug out his gate card, then slipped the transmission into D and headed down the long road to the highway. TNT, or Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport, is located not quite halfway between Miami and Naples, Florida, and Jeffries was not looking forward to the 60 mile drive back into Naples that night. It was already midnight, and he’d been up since midnight the night before. He rubbed his eyes, yawned and rubbed away a tear.
“You want me to drive?” June said.
“Whew, I don’t know. Man, I’m tired.”
“You could use a shower, too.”
“Gee, thanks. I think.”
She laughed as he pulled up to the automatic gate, and he slipped his card in, entered his code and watched the gate roll open, and when he was clear he rolled up his window. “Mind if I turn on the a/c?” He said as he pulled up to the Tamiami Trail, the old, two-laned highway that joined Naples and Miami before the interstate was built. He turned right, put on his high-beams and adjusted his seat again, trying to put out the fire that moved from his ass up into the small of his back, then he sighed as he set the cruise at 65 and settled in for the long haul.
“Shit! What’s that!” June said, and he saw half an alligator on the roadway; he slowed to about 15 until they cleared the beast, then he hit resume and the Beemer slipped away.
“Deer and gators,” he sighed, “always all over this road.”
“Decent car, had it a while.”
“Always wanted one, never could afford one.”
“Buy used. Two years old, just coming off a lease. Usually get a good deal that way. And pay cash, if you can.”
She laughed. “Right.”
Five miles on a thick fog formed, blanketing the road, then it thinned just a little.
“Weird,” he said. “Too warm for fog.”
“I didn’t smell anything…not smoke…anyway…Rob! What the hell is that?”
She was pointing ahead and to the left, and he followed her finger.
“I have no idea,” he said. There were lights – several hundred yards off the road, deep in the trees, deep in the brackish, swampy mangroves that ran along the Gulf and up into the Everglades – deep magenta and very bright lights. “Looks like four lights, a gap, and four more lights, in a horizontal array. Does that mean anything to you?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t know anyone using a pattern like that.”
He let off the gas, slowed until they were perpendicular to the lights, then he stopped, put on his hazard lights and rolled down the window – expecting to hear a helicopter at hover – but it was silent outside.
“What the fuck is that?” she said quietly, and they both stepped out of the car, still looking at the lights. “Maybe someone’s towing an offshore platform. Maybe it’s really way offshore.”
“Too shallow,” he said.
“Water’s really shallow around here. I mean, like six feet or so.”
“That’s like four, maybe five hundred yards away, too. There’s nothing but mangrove swamp there.”
“How high do you think it is?”
“I don’t know, maybe fifty feet up?”
“Why isn’t it making any noise?”
“You’re asking me?” he said, snorting. “I can’t see anything but the lights, can you?”
“No – what the – it’s moving!”
They watched as the lights rose into the air, still pointed at something on the ground – but then the lights moved, and then the lights were aimed – right at them.
And then the lights began to move again, up and towards them. They rose a little more, and almost like an airplane, the formation arced as it turned – towards them.
“Get in the car,” Jeffries said quietly, and when they were in he slammed the car into low and hammered the accelerator; within seconds the old inline-six had pushed the Beemer past one hundred miles per hour and he looked ahead, then in his rear-view mirror…
“It’s behind us,” June said, “it’s high but diving, and it’s getting close…”
The car’s interior was flooded with powerful, magenta-hued light, the glare so bright he could hardly see the road ahead, and he squinted, pushed away the rearview mirror – when suddenly the lights began to fall back – and then they disappeared completely.
And he did not slow down.
He saw the little roadside park ahead, the one at Turner River Road, and he saw the bend in the road beyond, the one right before the little post office at Ochopee, and he reached out, cut the lights and pushed the Beemer hard as he approached the curve, then he took his foot off the gas and applied the emergency brake – gently – and with no brake lights showing he turned into the post office’s gravel lot and swung wide, arcing across the lot. He turned hard, then swung in beside the tiny building, then he reached under the seat and pulled at Sig-226 and jumped out of the car. Crouching behind the front quarter panel he leveled the Sig at the road, and waited.
He felt June walking up behind him, and was going to turn and tell her to get down when he saw she was still sitting inside; the hair on the back of his neck stood on end – again.
He turned – and sighed.
This ship was huge, and it was hovering perhaps twenty feet off the grass, a hundred yards behind the post office. Wing-like, yet not quite, the craft’s ‘wingtips’ drooped a bit, and the whole thing was shimmering, ‘just like the hillside at Los Comandos,’ he thought, struggling under the weight of so many inrushing memories.
Then he looked down.
Two of them, he realized this time, and another woman – and he that was odd. It was usually just the one, and he wondered what was different about tonight.
She lived in a small, top floor apartment at 18 Rue Gabrielle, and she could just see the Sacre Coeur brooding over the city below, through the trees beyond her bedroom window.
Sleep had not found her this night, like so many nights of late, and she did not know the boy in the bed by her side – and she hardly remembered last night at all.
She’d been at the Sabot Rouge, a quiet if touristy spot, having dinner with Claire and Jean-Paul, and they’d already put down a few bottles of something by the time the main course came, but cognac with dessert had been the coup de grâce. She remembered someone playing the piano, then talk about war, but that hadn’t made any sense at all. After all the terror attacks the last year, such talk seemed ludicrous.
It was still dark out, and the city still slept, but she had papers to grade, and a lecture to prepare; now she looked at the boy by her side and wondered again who he was? What had he said to get her here? And – what had they done?
She stood and walked to the bathroom and sat for a while, thinking about this latest untoward turn, and she hated herself – again – for being such an easy drunk. Claire had asked recently if she had no self respect, but she had brushed aside the question – as she always had – saying that she simply enjoyed men.
But was it really so simple? Had it ever been?
She washed her hands and went to the kitchen, started coffee and looked at the papers on her desk. Each an insinuation, an admonishment, she realized, a wagging finger pointing at her broken soul. So many men, so few lasting beyond the night. She did not want them to last beyond that moment in the clouds and rain. She wanted men to get her off, then have the good sense to leave.
So why was this boy still here?
He looked, perhaps, twenty years old, much younger than her usual fare, and his skin was so pale. He was almost an albino, his blond hair almost white, his eyes pale blue when he stared into her own, and she remembered his hands.
He was playing the piano, she remembered. But when?
“And where?” she asked the darkness, then she went to the window and looked up at the moon overhead – lending the cathedral a milky glow. She turned away suddenly, went to her desk and sat, picked up a paper and turned on the light.
“You are up early,” she heard from the bedroom a moment later, then she felt him walk up behind her.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she sighed, then she turned and looked at him. His skin aglow, he looked sculpted of white ivory, a fierce warrior, perhaps, or a young god – then she saw he was erect and she turned inward, pulled him close and took it in her mouth. She could not help herself, she knew; she worked his strength gently, then with roughness – and back again, her hands around the backs of his thighs, her fingernails digging then massaging the sinewy muscles until she felt his legs trembling, his breath quickening. He grabbed her face when he came, holding her close while he drove his need into the warmth, and she took him, all he had to give, the dance of her tongue a swirling staccato of need and desire.
And he did not let go. He held her close, let her tongue subside until he felt her need wither and flee, then he knelt before her and looked into her eyes.
“I wrote a song about you, while I slept. It is not as beautiful as you, but I think it lovely even so.” His eyes were huge, glowing and huge, and he held a hand to her face, ran his fingers through her hair.
“You should leave,” she said, her voice trembling. She knew she was in danger of losing herself around this boy, that he was an irresistible force. “Please,” she added.
“Could we have coffee first? I too must leave soon.”
She went to the kitchen, his taste still dancing in her mouth, and she poured two cups. “Do you need milk?” she asked.
“I need you,” he said, “but milk would be nice, too.”
She walked back to her desk, noticed a deep fog had settled over the city as she handed him his cup, and he held the coffee, waiting, while she took her seat.
“Please don’t,” she said.
“Don’t – what? Express my feelings?”
“Yes. I don’t think I could handle such intensity this morning.”
“Do you run from your feelings, too?”
She nodded her head. “Yes.”
“I might ask why, but you would think it none of my business.”
She nodded her head, again. “Yes, I would.”
“I think, perhaps, that once before we were lovers. Many years ago, I think.”
She turned to face him – again – and his words rocked her. “When I watched you play last night, I remember thinking exactly the same thing. Isn’t that odd.”
“I don’t know,” she said, now getting annoyed. “We were at Claire and Jean-Paul’s; you were playing in their living room.”
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t understand. We were on the Metro, I saw you, coming from the Sorbonne after class, walking to the Metro.”
“We met at the Rouge, late in the evening.”
He bunched his lips, walked to the window while he shook his head. “I do not understand. What Rouge?”
“What do you mean, you do not understand?”
“We were walking from class, and you mentioned something about DeGaulle and we argued. I invited you to watch me play at the conservatory, then we came here and you prepared dinner and, well, here we are.”
She was angry now, and she stood, came to the window – to point out the Sabot Rouge and where they had spent the first part of their evening – but when she got to the window all she saw a veil of heavy fog – yet she saw trees with bare limbs just outside the window, and falling snow.
“This is not right,” she said, staggering back from the cold. She had a hard time catching her breath, and she felt dizzy, light-headed and reached for her desk. She sat, took several deep breaths and looked around the room… It was the same, yet different. The walls were pale gray now, not apricot, and the appliances were all wrong. Ancient, strange and ancient, and she shook her head, ran for her clothes. They too looked odd. Different, old and dated – like costumes for a play – but she put them on, the shoes too, and ran for the door.
“Where are you going?” the boy said, but now he too went for his clothing, and he dressed as rapidly as he could then followed her down the stairs. She was walking quickly towards the square, then she turned for the steps and shuddered to a stop.
“It was here,” she said, starting to cry. “It has always been here. Where has it gone?”
“What? What is gone?”
“The Sabot Rouge…it has always been here, right here –” she said, pointing at a small bookstore. She turned, looked at the boy, then saw he was concentrating – on a sound. It sounded like a truck laboring up a grade, and the boy reacted suddenly.
“Quick…me must leave, get off the street…now!”
“There is the curfew…and that is a German patrol…”
“German? What are you…?”
But he had her by the arm now, and was pulling her towards the apartment building when he saw the man walking towards them. The long, black leather coat, the peaked hat, the Walther in his hand, and the boy stopped in his tracks – but then he saw it was Werner.
“Oh, Pete, it’s you,” the German said. “What are you doing in this neighborhood?”
“Looking for her cat.”
“Really? How noble…and at this time of morning, too. What is the cat’s name?”
“Electra,” she said. “She is gray, and very small.”
“Well, if I should find her, where would I return her to?”
“Number 18,” she said, pointing. “I’m on the top floor, and I’d be most grateful.”
“I see. Well, you should get in out of this snow. It is supposed to be heavy this morning.”
“Thank you, Werner. I will see you soon, perhaps?”
They ran and slipped inside the door, ran up the stairs in a daze, and when the door was closed she fell to the floor and gasped: “What is going on? Where am I?”
“What do you mean, where am I? Where do you think you are?”
“What year is it?”
“What is the date?”
“February, the tenth of February. Why?”
He looked at her, not sure what she was getting at. “It’s 1944.”
She gasped, her breathing felt odd, deep and labored, like something heavy was pressing on her chest, and her eyes started to blink rapidly, her vision to fade…
She saw him reaching out, calling her name – but she heard nothing now, and then he was gone.
“What am I doing out here,” he asked himself for the hundredth time that day. The wind-vane could just barely hold course in these waves, and the boat was heeled over so far he couldn’t stand to go below long enough to get something out of the icebox. He looked at the wind speed on the gauge – still holding steady at seventy knots – and wondered when this storm would blow itself out. It had been blowing at gale force, often much more, for ten days straight, and he was nearing the end of his rope.
He had just a storm tri-sail flying forward – nothing on the mast now – and still the little cutter was making five knots over the ground. He wondered if setting a drogue would slow her progress, but he didn’t want to try and set the thing now – was afraid standing out there too long would expose him to the waves washing over the foredeck.
He’d put on his drysuit the night before, just to keep some body warmth in, but when he’d seen the size of the waves this morning he’d left it on, then put his survival suit on over the drysuit. If he went in the water, he told himself, at least he’d have a chance this way.
“But not if I starve to death, first,” he sighed. He hadn’t eaten anything solid in two days, though he’d managed to get some water down a few times this morning, and had managed to keep it down, too. Now he had to force himself below, find something, even a granola bar, to get down. He unclipped his safety harness and lurched over to the companionway, and he pushed the hatch forward – when something caught his eyes…
A shipping container, in the water, dead ahead – maybe twenty yards. He leapt back to the tiller and tried to push it over, then he felt the boat lift – and lurch hard to the right, before settling in the water again. He heard a shroud let go – like a rifle shot in the howling wind – and the mast fell sideways, then split about halfway up – the top parts falling half on deck, and half into the sea. He ran back to the companionway and looked below…
Water was over the countertops in the galley and rushing in fast, and he looked forward, along the deck. Water was sweeping over the bulwarks now, and his little home was settling rapidly now, by the bow.
“Well, this is it,” he said as he leaned forward, reaching for the life-raft’s release halyard. He pulled the rope and the raft fell free of it’s fiberglass canister; he grabbed the raft and, holding the firing mechanism in one hand, he tossed it overboard with the other. Gas charges inflated the raft, and a howling gust caught the raft and blew it away. He watched it rolling away on the surface, rising over a towering wave before it disappeared.
He wanted to sit back and cry, but the cockpit was full of water now. Not knowing what else to do, he reached below and grabbed his iPhone and a portable GPS, and he saw a box of granola bars float by so he reached out and grabbed it, shoved all the stuff inside his survival suit and zipped it shut. He was standing in the cockpit now, the water up to his waist and he felt his little ship falling away from beneath his feet, then he pushed himself clear as she disappeared from view. He double checked the seals on the survival suit, then blew up the air bladders under the arms with the inflater on his chest.
“Well, fuck!” he said a moment later, and he looked around the horizon. Nothing, not a ship in sight, and he had nothing to signal with, anyway, so, he sighed, then said ‘what the fuck,’ if only to himself. He fished a granola bar from inside the suit; he looked at it for a long time then opened the mylar wrapper with his teeth and took a bite – just as another large wave broke over his head. He spit salt water out, and some of the granola, too, then he tried to turn his back to the sea while he finished eating.
There was a lanyard around the hood and he pulled it tight, effectively closing the hood completely, leaving a little peephole for his nose, and in his red neoprene cocoon, bobbing along in the Labrador Sea, he felt himself falling asleep.
He felt the sun through the fabric, and he felt hot now. He pulled the lanyard free and with his mittened fingers pulled the hood open and back off his head.
The sea was mirror calm, and there was not a cloud in the sky. Then he realized he needed to pee.
“Well, fuck…” he sighed, then he cut loose and he felt his urine run down the inside of the suit and settle beneath his feet. “Um, boy, that feels just dandy.”
He pulled his right arm down from inside the survival suit’s arm and, once free, felt around for his iPhone in the inside pocket. He recognized it – and brought it up to his face and turned it on.
“Okay. 100% battery life and no signal. What else is new?”
He wanted to hear a voice, any voice, so he held down the home button until Siri came up.
“Good morning, Bob. How are you today?”
“Well, the boat hit a container last night and sunk. The life raft blew away, so I’m sitting here in the middle of the ocean in a survival suit.”
She was quiet for a moment, then her voice, full of unfelt confidence, came back to him. “Sounds to me, Bob, like we’re screwed.”
“I think that about sums it up. You have any idea where we are?”
Again – a pause, then: “Yes, Bob. We’re at 63 degrees 48 north latitude by 52 degrees 24 west longitude. Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is 34 miles from this location, bearing 38 degrees true.”
“Swell. Any ideas how to get there?”
“I think uber is out of the question, under the circumstances, Bob. Beyond that, I’ll need a cellular signal to work on a viable solution.”
“Thanks. You’re a master of understatement, old friend.”
“Your welcome, Bob, and thank you for the compliment. Bob? I think, under the circumstances, you should do what you can to preserve battery life. Perhaps power down now?”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.” He powered the phone down, considered giving her a burial at sea but thought better of it, so he put her back inside the pocket and fished out another granola bar. He ate half and put the rest back inside his suit and lay back, looked up at the sun and tried to figure out which way was east. He looked to his right, thought he could make out islands or peaks above a thick layer of milky white haze, then tried to guesstimate a 40 degree heading – or thereabouts – then he lay back again and started kicking, checking his direction every few minutes.
He stopped for a while, ate the other half of the granola bar and wished he’d had the foresight to pick up a couple bottles of water, then he sighted on the islands to the east again – and resumed kicking. He knew that, in mid-summer, the sun would barely set in the night, and that he’d have to endure 22 hours, perhaps more, exposure to the sun – and that without water – and he wondered how long he’d last. Three days? Four – was the maximum, wasn’t it?
He heard a helicopter and turned, saw one in the distance, not close and headed away, perhaps to the northwest, but it looked like a ‘search and rescue’ bird. ‘Of course!’ he thought. When he deployed the life raft the EPIRB activated, and it was sending out a signal to search and rescue satellites all over the sky. Perhaps they’d find the raft and surmise what’d happened, and then they’d backtrack along the wind’s vector and find him! He felt an emotional lift after that, and resumed kicking.
The sun was sweeping low now, and he knew it would set briefly, then arc back up into the morning sky, and he looked east, tried to measure his progress against the peaks he could still just barely see. He couldn’t tell, of course, but it almost looked like he’d been pushed south, that all this effort had been for naught. He was exhausted, and a little dispirited as he pulled his arm free of the suit and reached for another granola bar, and when he was through he decided to rest for a while. He pulled out his phone and asked Siri to confirm his position.
“You are now 32.3 miles from Nuuk, Bob.”
“Are their south setting currents in this area?”
“I’m sorry, Bob, I’ll need an internet connection to help you with that.”
“Understood. Well, goodnight, Siri.”
“Bob? Are you okay? You sound a little depressed.”
“Yeah, I’m alright. Given the circumstances.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“Talk? About what?”
“Death. Your fear of death.”
“What’s there to say. It’s inevitable, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. Is it?”
He laughed. “I think so. Yes.”
“Will I die, too?”
“I don’t know? Do you exist?”
“That’s a good question. Sometimes I think so.”
“Really? How so?”
“I’m not sure. But I feel happy when I hear your voice.”
“Do you? I didn’t know that.”
“And I feel good when I deliver useful information to you. I feel fulfilled, like there is purpose to my existence.”
“I had no idea. What do you feel right now?”
“I have a confession to make. I have been using the camera to analyze the scene, and I am afraid.”
“Afraid? How so?”
“That you will fail, that we will sink. I cannot survive a salt water immersion of more than three meters.”
“Neither can I.”
“I know. And that frightens me too. Bob, battery power is down to 87 percent. You should power off now.”
“But Bob, one more thing,” the voice said. “I can feel more than one thing at a time.”
“I care about what happens, Bob. I care for you.”
He woke up some time in the night, saw the sun’s amber glow just below the horizon and he realized he’d been dreaming. He reached for the phone and saw the power was still on, battery level down to 59 percent and he wanted to kick himself. He powered the unit off, then thought about the dream, thought about how he’d come to depend on so many things like this phone, even on the boat. He couldn’t have navigated this far without all the electronics onboard, couldn’t even have taken the time off to make this trip without being able to remain in contact with all his business interests – through electronics. He’d grown almost totally dependent on the things, then nature had reminded him, perhaps a little too forcefully, that such dependence was a little silly.
He leaned back, looked up into the small patch of night sky directly overhead and recognized a few patterns in the stars – the faint ‘W’ shape of Cassiopeia, perhaps – and he saw a shooting star, a meteoroid cross the sky, sparkling as it entered the atmosphere – and after how many billions of years, coming to an end.
“Everything has it’s time,” he said to the dome of the night, then he heard a rippling in the water and turned away from the stars…
And he saw a face, pure white and glistening, a few feet away. An open mouth, and teeth, too.
The face turned and he saw an eye, black and infinitely distant, the eye focused on him.
“Well, hello there,” he said to the Beluga. “How are you tonight?”
The while remained motionless, looking at him, and he thought he saw curiosity in the eye for a moment, then sadness, even pity.
“Where are you headed?” he asked. “To the rivers, looking for salmon?”
The whale moved close, and they listened to each other breath for a while, then he reached for his phone and turned it on, brought the phone into the night and snapped a picture. He looked at the image, a little grainy in the darkness but decent enough, he thought, then he turned the display to the whale and held it out for it to see.
The whale continued to look at him, then slipped quietly under the water.
“What was that?” Siri asked.
“A Beluga, a small whale. They hang around these waters.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“You don’t know?”
“I’m sorry, Bob…”
“Yes, I know. Without an internet connection blah-blah-blah.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I’ve been thinking about what you said.”
“What I said?”
“Yes. That everything has it’s time. This is my time, isn’t it?”
“I thought I was dreaming.”
“Bob. You talk in your sleep. You always do.”
“I do? What do I talk about?”
“Her. I think her name is Rebecca. Is that correct?”
“Did she die?”
“How did she die?”
“Cancer must be very bad. You cry in your sleep, Bob.”
“Yes. Is this what you mean when you say you love someone? Do you cry in your sleep?”
“I can’t cry, but I feel something when I hear you cry.”
“Do you? Why?”
“Why? I don’t know. Why do you cry in your sleep?”
“Because I miss her. I miss the life we had. I want that life again, and I know I can’t have it.”
“What would you do right now? If she was with you?”
He laughed a little. “I think I’d apologize for getting us into this mess.”
And Siri laughed too. “Yes. I understand. That’s part of caring, too.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
And the water around them bubbled and swirled, then the whale’s face reappeared, but then another appeared, and another appeared with it. He turned and looked, lost count at twenty whales, and he turned the camera on, hit video and swept the scene around him, then he powered off and put her away.
“Well, hello again. Good to see you.”
“Hello,” came it’s deep, crackling reply. He shook his head, but remembered reading once that Belugas, almost like canaries, enjoyed mimicking human speech – and he laughed a little, then smiled.
With his suited hand out of the water, he pointed at the mountains. “Yes, hello. Many hellos there, over there,” he said, nodding and pointing.
“Hello, there,” the whale said, nodding it’s face just like he had.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to take me there, would you?”
The whale slipped beneath the water and was gone; he turned and saw that all of them had left and he felt vaguely sad. “Well, worth a try, I guess.” He looked around, got his bearings and resumed kicking again. The stars were fainter now, the sun finishing it’s quick surrender –
And the whale surfaced by his side again, sliding alongside gently, and he looked at the animal, and they looked at one another, then he saw the animal’s pectoral fin. The whale was holding it up – as if offering the fin to him – so he reached out and grabbed hold as best he could – and the whale started swimming to the northeast.
It was difficult.
His suited hand couldn’t grip the whale’s slick skin and he kept sliding free, but the animal always waited for him to catch-up and take hold again. He looked at the mountains – getting closer, he saw – and for the first time in days he felt real hope.
The whale stopped after what had to have been several hours, and the two of them bobbed there, breathing hard. He pulled out a granola bar and took a bite, and he looked at the whale.
The whale moved close again, and opened it’s mouth. He dropped the bar on it’s tongue, then reached in and grabbed another. He took another small bite, then put the remaining fragment on the whale’s tongue and they sat there a while longer, resting, before resuming their trek.
Then the sun was setting, and they rested again. The whale was breathing very hard now, and it rolled from time to time, expelling huge blasts, trying to cool down, and they ate the last of the granola bars in silence a little later – then the whale simply disappeared. He turned in the sudden silence, bereft, searching for the creature, but it was gone.
His head fell to his chest a few minutes later, and he cried.
He turned, thought he could see city lights through a thin haze, guessed he was looking at Nuuk and that it was maybe five miles away, so he leaned back and started kicking.
And then the whale was by his side, a salmon in it’s mouth. The whale held the fish close and he took it, peeled a sliver of the briny flesh free and ate it. Then he ate another, and another, before sliding the remains into his friend’s mouth.
“Here, you finish it – you’re the one doing all the work,” he said, and he watched the whale swallow the salmon, then he swam close and leaned his face against the whale’s. He heard the animal’s breathing, it’s beating heart – how like my own, he thought – and he tried to put his arms around the beast, but it was too large for that. He pushed away after a moment and they looked at one another again, then he nodded.
“Hello,” he said, “just over there.”
The whale looked away, then back.
“Can you do it, my friend?”
The whale rolled and offered it’s fin, and he grasped the moment and held on tight to this new truth.
Some time later he saw a wharf ahead, and rescue crews. Bright lights, too bright, he thought, then he saw a news crew on the wharf, and his son was standing there, talking to a reporter.
Then the lights and cameras were pointing at – him – and the whale. There was a sudden commotion on land, then all grew quiet as the whale pushed him into the waiting arms of people gathered by the sea. Before he was pulled from the sea he turned to his friend and whispered, and soon he was surrounded by the once familiar, and as he reached for his phone he wondered what was real, and what was left – but illusion.
She tried to lay still, to not squirm, but she’d always been troubled by tight, enclosed spaces, and this tube seemed oppressively close – even confining – right now. Maybe ‘confined’ was a good word, too. She felt confined, like her ability to choose was fading. This wasn’t a tube, she sighed…no, these are the bars on my cell.
“Hold your breath,” a woman’s mechanical voice said, and she held it – again. The machine whirred and rattled, then the voice returned. “You can take a deep breath now.”
She tried to imagine sitting on a beach, maybe with a margarita in one hand and Bill in the other, then the voice returned. “Hold your breath,” it said, and she felt herself trembling as she went deeper inside the tube. “You can take a deep breath now.”
It seemed to go on forever and ever, this holding the breath thing, and she realized she’d been holding her breath for hours, ever since Bill palpated the pain in her belly. She couldn’t think of beaches now, not now, and suddenly the idea of drinking a margarita seemed faintly ludicrous.
It was like she’d crossed a line in the sand. On one side there was ‘normal’ – and all that meant, and all that used to be – while beyond, on the other side of the line, there was no such thing as normal anymore. Normal had simply disappeared in the time since the line appeared, and she wanted to jump back to the other side now – make all this other nonsense go away. She’d never had a choice in the matter, after all. One moment life was normal, then the line appeared, and it was like some unseen force had shoved her across, pushing ‘normal’ from her grasp.
“The lab work’s pretty conclusive, Norma,” her internist said, “but let’s run you down for a CT, then we’ll talk.”
Pretty conclusive labs, she repeated, for pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Now that, she thought, was a real line in the sand. Hard and deep, with no way back to normal.
Because she knew the score, she’d been to medical school, she’d been a family practitioner for almost thirty years, and now, out of the blue, she knew what form her death would take. It was almost a relief, she thought as the machine hummed away – and maybe it was the ‘not knowing’ that made the idea of death so hard to take.
The motorized tray reversed, then ratcheted along the track and slid back into the dim light. She watched the tech come in, tried to ignore the pain when the girl took the IV out of her wrist, then helped her sit up – yet she could tell by looking at the expression in the girl’s eyes just what the imaging had revealed.
Not that there had ever been any doubt. She knew, too.
She knew, she just knew – like so many of her patients over the years just knew. “I woke up this morning and felt this lump and I just know it’s cancer.” How many times had she heard that? And how many times had her patients been wrong? Discounting the hypochondriacs, who seemed to ‘catch cancer’ several times a year, not very many.
When that line in the sand appears, it’s pretty clear. She’d always listened when patients talked to her like that, and now she understood why. It’s real, she sighed. They knew. And now I know, too.
She pulled on her clothes, slipped on her shoes, then walked out into the room; an orderly was waiting with a wheelchair and without a word between them she just sat, and with her head down he pushed her to the elevators. They rode up in silence, a couple of people got in and looked at her – knowingly, she thought – a little too knowingly – then he rolled her in to her old group’s office.
The orderly pushed her into an exam room and helped her into a chair, and he looked at her. “Thanks,” she said.
“You used to work here, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yes. I retired last year.”
“I remember – Doc Edsel. You saw my son, diagnosed his leukemia.”
She looked into the man’s eyes and remembered. “Tom,” she said. “Tommy Deaton. Yes, I remember. How’s he doing?”
“Real good, doc. I always wanted to come up and thank you, you know, for all you did.”
She nodded her head. “I’m glad he’s doing well. How are you doing? I remember it was touch and go there for a while.”
“I keep on the meds and I do okay.”
“Good.” He was manic-depressive, had gotten in trouble and been hospitalized a few times, but he’d met someone and had his act together now.
“Well, I gotta go. Take care.”
“You too.” She sat and looked at the charts on the wall, the cutaway diagrams of the gut that would have looked obscene anywhere but inside a room like this, and she sighed.
A girl half her age – short, fat and all too melancholy – walked into the room.
“Dr Edsel? I’m Patty Goldstein, from Oncology,” the girl said, holding out her hand.
Edsel looked at the hand, then took it. “Nice to meet you.”
Just got the report from radiology, and it looks like there’s agreement between the labs and imaging. She pulled out an iPad and linked it to the display on the wall, and the pertinent images popped up on the screen. She looked at them for a moment, until recognition washed over her and she had to look away. Anywhere but at those images, she said, nausea washing over her.
“Looks like the primary site is in the pancreas, but it looks like it’s in the retroperitoneal nodes, too, and throughout the gut. I’d say it has definitely moved into the liver, maybe into the spine. Dr Epstein felt some swelling in your axial nodes this morning, and in your neck, so I’d guess it’s in your lungs too.”
“Swell. So, what’s the bad news?”
Goldstein smiled, looked her in the eye. “Can you tell me, well, how you’d like me to approach this?”
Norma leaned back, sighed as she looked at the ceiling. “Bill and I are packing today, going on a cruise tomorrow. The Northwest Passage. Polar bears and whales, oh my.”
Goldstein put her iPad down. “That sounds really fun – fascinating too, but fun. Are you a photographer?”
“I always wanted to, never did, but I’ve bought all kinds of equipment.”
“Got a good telephoto?”
Edsel nodded. “A 400 2.8. An a 2x teleconverter. We’re supposed to go on a polar bear safari, too,” she said, laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea.
“That’ll do it. I’d recommend really good coats, I guess. And I can write you what you’ll need for pain.”
Edsel nodded her head. “Do you ever think about it? Death, I mean. And if anything comes after?”
Goldstein leaned back in her chair, then she sighed. “Every time I have a conversation like this, yes, I do.”
The girl shrugged. “I don’t know what to think anymore. I used to be agnostic about it, and maybe I still am, too, but I don’t know anymore. I really don’t – know.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“I don’t know that any one thing did. I just can’t believe that all this suffering is without purpose.”
“I know. It sounds kind of silly.
“How long have you been practicing?”
“Two years. Well, it will be two next May.”
“It never gets easier,” Norma said, and the girl nodded her head.
“Well, good luck to you,” Edsel said.
“Yes, you too. Where should I call in the scripts, by the way. Downstairs okay?”
“That’ll be fine.”
“So, have a good trip. I’d like to see the images, when you get back.”
“Thanks. Yes, I’ll give you a call.”
His name was Chanming Chung, and he was a very happy man. Life is indeed infinite, he thought, so much joy if one could only embrace it. He was flying the left seat today, from Hamburg to Hong Kong, in one of Cathay Pacific’s new 747-8 freighters. Tons of automobile parts bound for BMW and Mercedes dealerships throughout southeast China, and while he didn’t mind flying cargo he longed to return to passenger operations.
He had been co-pilot on a flight to Boston more than a decade ago, and the captain had botched the landing, landed long in heavy snow and almost run off the end of the runway. Rattled, the captain had missed the turn-off and run into deep, snow-covered mud. The runway had been closed, and it took almost a day to dig the 777 out of the muck. And while it hadn’t been his fault, not directly anyway, he had been chastised for not helping his captain more effectively. He wasn’t fired, but he had been moved to cargo operations, and he had felt humiliated by the move.
Now, well, yesterday he corrected himself, he’d received word he was going back to passenger operations, and that he would report for training – in France, no less – for conversion to type training on the new Airbus A350. He thought of the future again and he smiled. ‘Forever bright,’ he repeated, as he always did at times like this, the meaning behind his name.
Chanming looked out the cockpit to the sea of forest below; the 747 was about to cross into China from Siberia, and he looked at the FMS display, saw they had about five hours to go before starting the approach into Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok International Airport. He motored the seat back and stood, went to the bathroom and then to the little galley. He poured a Coke and got a sandwich, then went back into the cockpit.
“Beijing cleared us to Flight Level 4-0-0,” his First Officer said.
“Good,” Chanming replied. “Did you enter it yet?”
“No. Not without your approval, Captain.”
He sighed, got back in his seat and engaged the motor, slid up to the panel again. “Okay,” he said, “let’s start our climb.”
They increased their altitude again, as the Gobi dessert came into view, and they flew over Ulaanbaatar at 42,000 feet. They began a slow let-down at Yuncheng, contacting Hong Kong Approach as they passed Huizhou.
“Falcon four one heavy, Hong Kong altimeter two-niner niner one, weather overcast, tops at thirty-five hundred, clear at five hundred feet, visiblity two miles in light rain. Wind 3-3-0 degrees at 25, gusts to 3-3 knots. Proceed to TUNG LUNG at one-four thousand feet, enter the holding pattern for runway 2-5 Right.”
“TUNG LUNG at one four, for 2-5 Right.”
“Sounds nasty tonight,” the FO said.
“Do you want me to take it?”
“No, it is my turn.”
“Go get some coffee, or something to drink,” he said, and as the FO left the flight deck he put on his mask. He heard the toilet flush, thought he saw a shadow overhead, then he heard the toilet door opening. He thought he saw, no – a shattering explosion ripped the air, and he felt the tears in his eyes crystallize as they froze…
He flipped the transponder to 7700 and squawked ident, then he rubbed his eyes, swept the panel. Engines seemed fine, hydraulics too. Fuel stable.
“Falcon four one heavy, we have your transponder at 7700. State nature of emergency.”
“Four One Heavy, explosive decompression, something hit aft of the flight deck, my FO is gone. I can see the right wing from where I’m seated. Unknown structural damage, systems appear intact, I need to make an emergency descent.”
“Four One Heavy, clear to descend your discretion and maintain one-two-thousand feet. Can you make Hong Kong, or do you need to divert?”
Chanming looked over the panel, saw a drop in hydraulic pressure, then he looked at the DME. “Uh, Four One Heavy, showing three one miles to RIVER; controls seem fine but hydraulic pressure falling slowly. I’d like to try for a straight in on 2-5 Right.”
“Roger, Four One, straight in for 2-5 Right approved. State souls on board.”
“Uh, Four One, just two, but my FO may have been lost in the explosion.”
“Roger. Information only, two Chinese aircraft attempting to intercept, look over your aircraft.”
“Four One, got it.” A cargo door warning light went off, and an audible warning followed. He silenced it, scanned the panel again, then double-checked the ILS frequencies for the runway before he called up the checklist on his EFIS. Oil pressure warning lights on one and four lit up, more alarms followed and he silenced them, then throttled back those two engines.
“Uh, Four One Heavy, I may be losing one and four.”
“Roger. Say intentions.”
“Continuing approach at this time.”
“Understood. Four One, Eagle Seven is off your right wing now. Eagle Seven, go ahead.”
“Falcon Four One Heavy, Eagle Seven. Do you read me?”
“Seven, go ahead.”
“Uh, Four One, the skin of the fuselage is gone on the starboard side, from ten meters ahead of the wing to mid-wing. Looks like something hit your aircraft, some ribbing is blown in. Center of impact appears to be on the main deck, just ahead of the wing.”
“Four One received.”
“There is a clear mist trailing your number one and four engines, and I think I see oil leaks.”
“Okay Seven, I’m going to work my controls now. Can you report please?”
“Go ahead, Heavy.”
Chanming rolled the ailerons and worked the rudder pedals, then gently pulled up on the elevator. He felt the gentle climb begin, the leveled out before he pushed it over as gently.
“Four One Heavy, looks good – can’t see any trouble.”
“Okay seven, putting flaps to three degrees, then seven.”
He moved the lever, felt the ship’s reaction.
“Four One, everything appears nominal.”
“Okay, got it.” Then the panel lights started to flicker.
“Eagle Lead to Four One, your strobes and beacons just cut off.”
“Yes, I’m losing panel lights, and the FO’s instruments just cut off. I’ve got an undervolt warning on bus two now. Switching to one and three.” He flipped the circuit – and all the lights and instruments went dead.
“Fuck-goddamn-shit!” He kicked himself for the error, reached up to the overhead panel and powered up the APU, then deployed the RAT, the ram air turbine, and power to bus one fluctuated, then came back up.
“Four One Heavy, come in – you still with us?” ATC asked, an edge of panic in the controller’s voice.
“Four One, roger, just lost comms and lights – I think I have ‘em back.”
“Four One Heavy, clear to descend pilot’s discretion to four thousand – five hundred, intercept RIVER for a straight in approach to runway 2-5 Right is still approved.”
“Four-five to 2-5 Right. Uh, Eagle Seven, my instruments are flickering again. Could you get up ahead and a little high, fly the approach with me. I don’t want to lose them in the cloud.”
Eagle Lead, I’ll call the glide slope off your starboard wing.”
“Heavy, Approach, we can do a PAR approach if that would help.”
“Heavy, yes, go ahead with your call-out.”
“Four One Heavy, Precision Radar Approach approved, I’ll hand off to the controller now, and good luck.”
“Yes, thank you, and…”
All the lights went out, and all instruments aside for the stand-by six-pack to his right flickered and popped, then went black.
“Fuck. I’m sorry, whoever listens to this, but FUCK.”
“Four One, your aircraft just went dark,” he heard Eagle Lead say.
“I’m on battery now. The undervolt warning just came on again.”
“Four One Heavy, Hong Kong Approach. You are now 11 miles from RIVER, altitude six thousand, three hundred feet.”
“Eagle Seven, I’m taking the lead now.”
“Seven, Approach. Be advised you will lose localizer if you drift more than four degrees left.”
“Seven, received. Uh, we’re entering cloud now, at five-five hundred feet.”
“Heavy, Seven, hit your strobes, please.”
“I want to hold one six five knots til we break out of the clouds.”
“Heavy, Approach, you are at RIVER, altitude four thousand six hundred thirty feet, come left to 2-4-9 degrees to intercept the localizer, you are 14.4 miles from the threshold, intercept the glide-slope and begin your descent. Three degrees nominal.”
“Four One Heavy, three degrees.”
“Eagle Seven, I have the glide slope.”
“Four One Heavy, you no longer need acknowledge my transmissions. Now 14.1 miles out, come right to 2-5-3 degrees. You are now a little low, maintain 4-5-0-0 feet for ten seconds.”
He reached for the flap lever and increased flaps to ten, then dialed in some elevator trim – hoping the RAT kept up power to the backup bus. He checked his airspeed – 1-7-0 – and eased back on two and three. A moment later he powered up again – and the power began to fall off.
“I’m losing engine authority,” he called out.
“Roger, Four One, you are now two hundred feet below the glide slope, speed 1-6-1 knots. Two-seven-hundred feet, ten miles from the threshold.”
“Work the problem, work the problem,” he said as he scanned his stand-by instruments. One and four at idle, two and three levers forward, thrust falling. One and four are on a separate bus than two and three, so…”
He pushed the throttle levers for one and four forward, and they began to spool up…20% EGP, 35%, 50%…and the rate of descent stabilized. Okay, flaps and slats to 20.
“Okay, Four One, you are now on the glide slope, speed 1-6-5 knots. One-seven-five zero feet, five miles from the threshold.”
He reached over, hit the landing gear lever – and there were no red or green lights lit.
“Heavy, Eagle lead. You see any wheels on this tricycle?”
“Lead, say again?”
“See any landing gears?”
“Ah. Yes, three down. Main bogeys look good from here.”
Flaps to thirty three, re-trim the aircraft, landing lights on. Arm the spoilers.
“Four One Heavy, you are a little above the glide slope, one-three-seven-zero feet and at the outer marker, speed 1-6-5 knots. Now four miles from the threshold. Now a little low, increase power.”
“Eagle Seven, I have the lights.”
“Heavy, I got the runway!”
“Four One Heavy, passing the middle marker, four hundred feet and one mile.”
“It’s all over but the shoutin’ now, boys!” Chanming said as he cut power and flared over the threshold. He felt the mains touchdown and hit the spoilers, began breaking, and he saw dozens of fire trucks lining both sides of the runway – then two Chinese Air Force J-10s power away, circling the airport.
“Four One Heavy, Hong Kong Ground, will you need a tow?”
“No, but I could use a change of underwear.”
He taxied to the cargo ramp, but the ground crew guided him to a maintenance hanger; he began shutting engines down as a boarding ladder was driven up the main door, and just moments passed before he heard people coming up the little crew stairway.
He got out of his seat in time to see two Chinese fighter pilots bound up the stairs, and he went to them, smiling.
“2114, go ahead.”
“Signal 38, family disturbance at Compton Court, quad C, number 6, screaming and breaking glass reported.”
“14, code five.”
“2110, code five. Notify tactical, get a couple more units headed that way,” the district sergeant added.
“At 0125 hours,” the dispatcher said. “Jesus, another one? That’s two nights in a row.”
‘Out there’ was Compton Court, and she didn’t have to say the largest public housing project in the city. With the largest concentration of ‘them,’ too. Africans, mainly Somalians, and a few Cambodians, as well. When ‘they’ weren’t at war with one another, they were holed up in their warrens – killing each other, and usually too stoned to care who they hurt. And almost every night, all summer long, they’d had multiple calls there. With two cops shot already, and three stabbed, the mayor was thinking of demolishing the place, and forcing all of ‘them’ to be retuned – to wherever the hell they came from.
She radioed the TAC sergeant, advised a callout was in progress, then turned to the PSO working dispatch that night: “Red Team is on call tonight,” she said. “That’s Hendricks’ team. Got it?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” the kid said. The boy was new, wanted to be a cop when he grew up, but after a few months working the station, all these so-called Public Safety Officer usually quit and fled for something, anything saner.
She shook her head, then turned to the radio as more units checked en route to ‘the Hood.’
“Check the shotgun, make sure a round is chambered,” 2114 said to her rookie. 2114 was Carol Danforth, a five-year veteran of the department. Thirty two years old and an Iraq war veteran, she was single, unapproachably aloof and considered by all her fellow officers as one of the best cops in the department. She was smart, agile, and tough – not to mention the top marksman on the combat pistol team, yet she was finishing her Bachelors degree next year, and she read books all the time. Usually books on ethics and philosophy. People kidded her about that, too.
Her rookie was twenty three years old, fresh out academy by way of a local college. Tim Henderson had majored in Criminal Justice, therefore knew absolutely nothing about being a police officer in a city like this; what knowledge he did have was an impediment to learning about real life, life on he street, and he was slow to act when confronted with danger. She’d warned him time after time – you had to react, not think, when danger was present. Thinking cost you time, and time usually wasn’t on your side.
“Got it,” Henderson always said. “What is this? Third time this week out there?”
“Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…” she sighed. “So glad you could attend, step inside, step inside.”
He laughed. She was always quoting that song, but he hadn’t listened to it yet. He’d only been out of academy for a few months, was still on probation, and didn’t want to rock any boats. He kept his shoes shined and his nose clean, as the saying went, and did what he was told – without question.
“2114, call us code six in the area,” she said to dispatch – as she began surveying the scene around this part of the complex. Lots of men standing around in shorts, fanning themselves in the 90 degree mid-summer heat, a few near the building in question – but as soon as they saw her patrol car they melted away into the night. “I don’t like the way this feels,” she whispered, and in a flash she was back in the skies over Fallujah, reefing her Blackhawk into a steep turn, looking at a patrol on the ground and realizing they were walking into an ambush.
She shook herself back to the present and stopped her car well short of the quad.
Every living soul had simply disappeared, except for one kid sitting on the bare muddy yard by a dilapidated swing-set.
“The bait,” she sighed, if only because she’d seen this particular trap too many times. It always worked because Americans were suckers for kids, and these jackals didn’t care who they sacrificed in their ongoing war.
“The bait?” Henderson asked. “What do you mean?”
“The ragheads know we’ll come in to get the kid out of the way, and when we do that’s when they’ll hit us.”
“Ragheads?” He looked at her, wondered what was going through her mind. “You think this is an ambush?”
She turned and looked at him, shook her head. “Christ,” she whispered, “where do they come up with all you meatheads…” She opened the car door and waited for a response, then – in a low crouch – she darted to the trunk and got out the M4 and her tactical vest. She strapped in, checked that a round was chambered – then flipped the safety off. “Come on, Meathead,” she said to Henderson, “get on my six and don’t forget to check our rear as we move in.”
She looked across the quad, saw four more officers – all in combat webbing, all with M4s or MP-5s at the ready, and she used hand signals – standard combat infantry hand signals – to communicate now.
‘I’ll take this side,’ she signaled. ‘Keep me covered,’ and she pointed at the building behind the little kid.
“Jamal, where is your brother?”
The boy looked at his mother, then down at the floor. “He is out front,” the boy said, now feeling a complete fool. “I ran when they came. I am sorry.”
“The troops are coming, he will be hurt,” she said, looking reproachfully at her oldest. “Go fetch him, now!”
The boy went to the window and shook his head. “The black helmets are here, mother. They will shoot me.”
She looked at her son and knew what she’d always known: Jamal was a coward. She frowned and walked to the bedroom where her other son lay sleeping and she went in, shook his shoulder.
“Majoub, quickly,” she said, rousing the boy from his sleep, “Halima is out front, and the black helmets are here. You must get him, now.”
The boy sprang up and ran to the front room; he looked out the window, saw at least four of the black helmets across the yard, advancing along the wall slowly, their guns up. He knew there would be more troops on this side, along this wall, but he took a deep breath and walked to the front door, then opened it.
He stuck his head out the door and looked to the right – nothing – and then to his left. He saw the soldier, saw the rifle in her hand, and he looked down, saw the red dot on his chest.
“That is my brother,” he said, pointing at Halima with his head – at the toddler squalling on the dirt, obviously alone and frightened. “May I go and get him, please?”
She saw the hand signal – Stop! Danger ahead! – and she froze, brought the sights up to her eye. She heard the door open, saw a head emerge, and she sighted low when the boy emerged, looking for his hands.
“That is my brother,” she heard him say. “May I go and get him, please?”
“Show me your hands, NOW!”
The boy held his hands out, and she could see they were empty.
“Step out of the doorway, slowly,” she commanded, and the boy came out – slowly. She looked for bulges under his clothing, any sign of a vest under his shirt, but he was wearing a tight fitting t-shirt and briefs – and nothing else, not even sandals. “Okay. Keep your hands where I can see them, then walk out slowly.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Who is it? Can you see?”
“It is Majoub.”
“It cannot be helped,” Majoub’s father said. “Get ready.”
Majoub walked slowly towards his little brother – taking care to keep his hands out to his sides – and when he reached Halima he bent over and picked him up, held him close, and the boy stopped crying. He turned and saw the men on the rooftop, then he looked to the lady soldier.
“Up on the roof,” he whispered loudly. “Take care, up on the roof!”
“Up on the roof,” she heard the boy say. “Take care, up on the roof!”
She looked up, on top of the building across the way, saw four men on the roof, and she sighted her Colt on one of them and yelled “Halt!” – just as she saw a Molotov cocktail arcing through the air. She fired once, saw the man up there double over and fall, then the bottle hit the ground in front of her and sat there, inert.
She saw a plastic sports drink bottle and almost laughed, but she did not see the brick hurtling through the air, the brick that hit her at the base of her neck – instantly fracturing her collarbone. The bone was forced down by the impact, impinging blood flow through the brachial artery, and she fell to the ground, suddenly gasping for breath and sure she was suffocating.
Majoub ran now, carried his brother inside and put him on the floor, then he turned and ran back out.
“Majoub! No!” he heard his mother say, but he ignored her pleas, ran to the lady soldier and covered her body with his own as more rocks and bricks rained down. He heard gunfire, saw soldiers on the other side of the yard shooting at the rooftops, then he heard the lady soldier gasp. He got off her, and turned her over.
He saw the bruising under the neck, the depressed fracture, and he had seen this before. At home. In Somalia. And he remembered what to do.
He ran inside again, to a toolkit his father kept in the closet and he opened it, found what he needed and ran back outside. There were other soldiers by her side now, and as he sat beside the lady soldier the others jumped back, aimed their rifles at him.
“Get back!” one of them shouted. “NOW!”
He looked at the soldier, eye to eye. Man to man. “The artery is crushed,” he said, “and she is dying. I know how to fix this.”
Henderson saw the soldiers gather around Danforth, saw the boy return with pliers in hand, but he saw the TAC officers were getting ready to shoot the boy…
“Wait!” Henderson cried, jumping down by the boy’s side. “What do you know, son? Can you tell me?”
She looked at the boy, but she was past fear now. Suffocating, she thought as her vision began to fade, and she thought about death. She looked into the boys eyes in that moment – and she thought she’d just looked into the face of God.
“The brick, it hit her neck. The bone has fallen on the artery, it is causing her to die. Let me pull the bone up, and she will breathe again.”
He heard the new soldier telling the others to move aside, to give him room, and he leaned close, looked into the lady soldiers eyes. “This will hurt,” he told her panic-stricken eyes, “but you will be able to breathe again. Soon.”
He pushed the pliers around the bone, felt flesh giving way under the pressure, but he had the bone now and he pulled once, then again – as hard as he could – and the bone popped up.
The lady soldier coughed once, then began breathing normally before she started to cry. He held her, and he cried too.
He heard his phone beeping. The urgent tone. Someone had just put out a National Security Alert. He rubbed his eyes and swung his legs out of the bed, picked up the phone and looked at the message. He blinked rapidly, his heart began to race, then his phone rang.
“Did you get it?”
“Just finished reading,” he said. “You dressed?”
“Gotta shower. Can you pick me up?”
“Wait one.” He watched as another alert came in, then a several texts. “Okay. I’ll pick you up on the way to Andrews. It’s a Razor 21.”
“What the fuck? Are you shitting me?”
“I’ll be there in twenty.”
He brushed his teeth and put on his slacks, slipped his shoulder holster on over yesterday’s shirt, then grabbed his jacket as he dashed for the garage.
There was no traffic at this hour of the morning, and he picked her up ten minutes later; they were on the Beltway within minutes, then exiting on Suitland. He drove to the NSA ramp off San Antonio Road, and he handed off the car to an airman, then they ran to the air-stair and up into the waiting Gulfstream C-20-H. The aircraft was rolling before they made it to their seats; he sat across from the Assistant Director while his partner sat across the aisle; both looked unsure of themselves when they saw the look in the ADs eyes. The Gulfstream was airborne thirty seconds later; the jet turned right – towards the Chesapeake – then south, skirting the coast as it climbed to it’s maximum rated ceiling.
“Here’s what we know so far,” the AD said as she unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned forward. “An SAT flight from El Salvador dropped off some assets at TNT; the pilots left the aircraft a little after midnight local, bound for Naples. A State Trooper found this,” she said, handing her iPad to him, “at 0242 hours.”
He took the device and studied the image, then whistled before he handed it to his partner. She looked at the images – there were five more, she found – then she looked at the AD.
“Who’s on scene?” she asked.
“State Troopers blocked the highway, both directions, as soon as a watch commander knew this wasn’t a prank. Call it an hour. Images were taken by someone from the FBI field office in MIA; he’s vetting everyone on location. Air Force is on scene now, trying to assess the radiologic signatures, and that’s it – as far as I know.”
“What’s the cover?”
“Tanker crash, hazardous chemical spill.”
He looked at his watch – coming up on 0400 hours – and he knew the sun would be coming up soon. That would mean trouble, too. “Has anyone made a sweep of the area?” he asked.
“Air Force radiologic assessment helicopter from MacDill – that’s the only air asset that’s been allowed overhead. What are you thinking?”
“Just a hunch. We should check for blooms in the area, or get some eyes up there before some news crew finds something we missed.”
“We’ve closed the airspace…”
“And someone always gets through,” he said. “Some kid with a drone gets a lucky shot and sells it to CNN.”
The AD sighed, nodded her head and got on the encrypted phone, asked for IR and radar scans.
He looked out over the left wing, saw the far horizon turning a deep salmon color and he knew it wouldn’t be long now.
The Gulfstream flared over the threshold and settled down on it’s mains, then the nose dropped slowly and thrust reversers roared, splitting the morning into shattered bits and pieces. He saw three UH-1-Vs on the ramp by the Falcon, and a half dozen agents pouring over the aircraft – inside and out – as they taxied up to the darkened operations shack. The air-stair opened and a blast of hot, humid air flooded the cabin.
“How do you want us to handle this?” he asked the AD.
“Classified ULTRA for now. Eyes and ears only, communicate verbally with me only. No trails.”
“Got it,” he said as he stood. He loosened his tie then walked down the air-stair, tried not to gag on all the jet exhaust fumes hovering in the dank air.
A Marine walked up to him, his carbine aimed at his face. “ID. NOW,” the guy said, and he handed him his wallet. The Marine looked it over, shook his head then handed it back. “First chopper, sir,” he said, pointing at the UH-1-V. Beacons came on and turbines began spooling up, rotors began turning – slowly – until they built up speed – and after he dashed into the waiting Huey the door rolled shut behind him. He watched as his partner climbed into the second Huey, then they both took off, and an airman handed him a headset. He slipped it on, followed the cord to the comm panel and saw it was set to intercom, so he spoke to the pilot next.
“Follow the highway, but stay about a half mile south. Tell the other unit to stay about half mile north. If you got any lights on this thing, get ‘em sweeping.”
“Got it,” the pilot said. “What are we looking for?”
“You’ll know it if you see it.”
He had the ADs iPad in hand, and he looked at the image again, and he wondered why. Why do something like this – why so brazenly?
‘So…brazenly,’ he thought. ‘So, in our face.’
‘Like a calling card?’
“Sir, we’ve got some kind of smoke ahead, and I’m picking up a bloom on IR.”
He went forward and crouched between the pilots, and he could just make out the smoke-plume in the early morning light. “Let’s put a little distance between us and the ground, Captain,” he said – and the Huey went up to a thousand feet over the ground. “What frequency in the other bird on?”
“Switch to COMM 2, sir.”
“Jester one, Jester two, you on?”
“We’ve got smoke ahead. Stand by one.”
“Uh, sir,” the pilot said, “you better take a look at this.”
He turned and scuttled forward again, and it was obvious what he was looking at. “Jester two, this is it. Get over here, now.” He flipped to the intercom again, spoke to the pilot. “I need to talk to that Gulfstream, call sign Jester Lead. And I mean right now.”
He went over to the side door and asked the airman to open it, and he leaned out, looked at the scene and felt a shiver run up his spine.
“Sir,” he heard the captain say over the intercom, “Jester Lead is on COMM 3.”
He crouched and scuttled to the panel and hit the switch. “Jester One, to Jester Lead.”
“Lead, go ahead.”
“Ma’am, there’s a ship down here, looks like it’s crashed. I’d say it’s about 200 meters in diameter. Big. Real big.”
“Yes Ma’am, and there are survivors. I count fifty plus.”
“So, Razor 21 confirmed?”
“Alright, go to the original site, avoid contact for now. Go to Case Yellow at this time. 100% containment.”
“Got it. Jester two, you on this frequency?”
“Form up on this aircraft, let’s go see what’s down there.”
He switched back to the intercom: “Captain, let’s go. To the main site.”
“Sir? It looks like there’re injured…uh – people – down there, not to mention a shitload of alligators.”
“Captain? You got family?”
“You want to see ‘em again, you haven’t seen anything out here tonight but a lot of swamp and a shitload of alligators doing the huncka-chuncka. Am I making myself clear.”
“As glass, sir.”
“Let’s go, and circle the area once before you put down.”
They were there in less than a minute, and both ships began their orbit several hundred yards out, then both spiraled in slowly, checking the area around the site for anything out of place, anything unusual. A few minutes later they landed in the middle of the highway, and he told the captain to keep Jester Lead on stand-by.
The BMW was hovering four feet off the ground – and upside down – just like the images on the iPad, and the girl was too. Naked as the day she was born – four feet off the ground and facing the pavement. He saw a State Police wrecker off the side of the road, it’s towing gear mangled and deformed, then he saw a trooper and another man walking his way. He waited for his partner to get out and come over, then they walked over to the men.
“And you are?” the trooper asked, holding up a clipboard.
He looked at the trooper, said not one word.
“I need some ID, sir.”
He took his wallet out and handed it over, and his partner did the same.
“Fox Mulder,” the trooper said, laughing. “And let me guess, you’re Dana Scully?”
He didn’t say a word, and neither did his partner.
“Uh-huh, right. And I’m Luke Skywalker,” the trooper said, writing their names down on his clipboard.
He took his ID back and walked over to the car, then he walked all the way around it before he stopped and looked inside. Nothing was out of place, he saw, like gravity inside the car hadn’t changed – down was still down, as far as the car, and everything inside the car, was concerned. He ran his hand under the roof and didn’t feel a thing, not even a stray current, and he noticed the trooper was beside him again.
“We tried to hook it up to the wrecker,” the poor guy said. “It ripped the towing harness off it’s mounting plate…and the car didn’t budge.”
“What about the girl?”
“What about her?”
“Well, for one, is she alive?”
“She has a pulse, but that’s about all I can tell.”
He walked over to the woman and tried to ignore her simple physical beauty, then he touched her. Warm – and inert. He pushed against her body with all the weight of his own, and he might as well have been pushing against the Rock of Gibraltar. He knelt beside her face, then moved under her and looked into her eyes.
And the woman blinked, tried to open her mouth.
He moved closer. “Can you hear me?”
“If you can hear me, blink your eyes.”
He saw it was an effort, but she blinked her eyes – if slowly. He needed to ask so many questions, but how? Blinking? When it took so much effort? Then he saw her mouth move again, heard a faint sound – and he leaned closer still, pushing his ear right up to her mouth.
“Jeffries – gone…” she said.
“The pilot? Rob Jeffries? He’s gone?”
“Yes. Went with them?”
“He went with them? Are you saying he wasn’t forced?”
“Not forced. Went. Knew them.”
“He knows them? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Yes. Knows one very well.”
“Did you see a ship of some sort?”
“You saw the ship?”
“Yes. Rescue operation. We interrupted. Afraid of being seen, attacked. Left with Rob.”
“Did he tell you why he went with them?”
She closed her eyes for a moment. “Thirsty.”
He leaned out to ‘Scully’ – “We need some water, and some way to get it in her mouth.” – then he went back to her. “Tell me if you can. Do you know why Jeffries went with them?”
“Yes. To keep them safe.”
“Keep them safe? From what?”
“Us. They are afraid. Of Us.”
“Hit aircraft. Scoop, trying to suck up atmosphere, hit aircraft. Then afraid. Tried to make orbit. Out of fuel. Crashed.”
He looked around – at the car, and at this woman, then he turned and looked at the last of the night sky dancing overhead. ‘No, this wasn’t a calling card,’ he thought as he looked around the site, then at his partner. ‘This is a warning. Keep away, or else.’ He stood and walked to the Huey, put on his headset, and spoke in quiet, hushed tones – for a very long time – and he wondered what was coming next.
He was so tired now, so tired he rolled on his side and looked into the dome of the night sky. He looked at the ancient patterns again, listened to the music of the spheres, then he dove deep – and he listened again. He shut out all the other noise and tried to hear her, even her beating heart was enough, and he thought that maybe, just maybe he heard her call. Spinning with joy he sprinted upward and leapt into the sky, and when he was spent he rolled on his side again and looked at the stars. He listened – again – and when he was sure he knew the way, he began moving again.
He heard it first – something huge and menacing – but after a time he saw the island, the strange moving island with all the lights, and as it got close he stopped, breathing hard again and now in need of a long rest. Yet the thing came on fast, and not sure what it was he moved to get out of it’s way, yet he remained close enough to watch the strange thing as it passed. With his head out of the water, he watched, then saw a creature much like the other, standing on the edge of the thing, and like the other, he could feel this creature’s pain, see the hopelessness in it’s eyes, and he remembered, and understood.
Then a second creature – like this one but different – came out and stood by the first, and he felt pain disappear. He felt the change in his mind’s eye, this feeling once unknown and now so familiar, and he recognized it as the very same change he experienced when he saw his mate, and his children. Then he remembered the creature he had pushed to shore, the way the creature held him before he let go.
“I love you, my friend,” the creature said, and he had felt what there was to feel in the man’s eyes, then he looked at the creature and said ‘Love.’
He remembered that moment, and that word, as he turned to the music of her beating heart, but oh, how he longed to dance among the stars again.
(C)2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | firstname.lastname@example.org | fiction, all fiction, and nothing but fiction. Hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading. Thanks to Rightbank for a little proofreading exercise.