Chapter 6 – Fire
The basic trainers were bound to Earth's atmosphere. They didn’t have the performance capability of the Astro Fighters Hardy wanted to fly someday. They were atmospheric trainers. Their purpose was to instill the fine points of aerodynamics. It helped the pilot understand how an aircraft reacted as it passed through molecules of air, denying the ever-present desire of gravity.
Hardy enjoyed the night flights the most during his basic training on Earth. It was as close as he could get to space when he was a young cadet. A cascade of stars welcomed him in the night. There were no cities or lights on the desolated landscape to obscure them. The wind was usually calm, and the dust settled to the Earth. The veil of night cooled the shattered ground and calmed the rising thermals. Even turbulence rested in the night.
With only the timid light of the stars to light the surface, it was easy to forget what had become of Earth. The desolate landscape was tragic, but it became his playground. There were few, if any, regulations or restrictions on airspace. No confinements, no limits. If his instructor saw fit, they could race along the nap of the Earth or they could push his trainer to the edge of the atmosphere.
Hardy was an advanced student, one of the top students in his class. His instructor often rewarded him at the end of each training session with a few moments of peace. He looked forward to those brief occasions when the constant chatter of corrections and opinions fell silent.
“So when is the big day, ma’am?” Hardy’s voice broke the steady faint static of the radio.
“March twenty-fifth,” Frodo replied. Hardy sensed she was smiling in the seat behind him.
“You’re not going to break that boy’s heart and leave ‘em standing at the alter, are you?”
“Do you mean am I going to let him off the hook? Not a chance! Watch your approach. You’re picking up the nav.”
The TACAN for the underground landing strip registered on his instruments. He was twenty kilometers out. It was time to set up for the approach.
He missed the convenience of the GPS systems, but most of the satellites in the supportive network for GPS navigation were destroyed. The effort to revert back to the ground-to-air navigation of the fixed-base system was successful. It was older navigation technology, but it was reliable and there was no dependency on the GPS satellite network.
Hardy eased back on the throttle and gently raised the nose of the aircraft, slowing his airspeed. He engaged the flaps and pushed the nose forward. The aircraft settled into its approach speed. He set the appropriate frequency into the radio and tapped his mike twice. In the distance, the faint light of the landing ball appeared. Behind it was a dim trail of lights, receding into a cavernous darkness in the earth.
“I’ve got the ball,” Hardy said to his instructor.
“You know the drill,” Frodo snapped, “airspeed and runway! Two degrees to your left! Get your nose down! I taught you better than this!”
Hardy smiled to himself as he carried out her demands. By now, he was used to the constant barking of an instructor in his ears. It was white-noise to him. They entered the glide path with the appropriate descent speed. He held it in the narrow window, coordinating with minute adjustments on the stick and with the slow, steady reduction of the throttle.
The mountains rose around them, and the horizon disappeared as they followed the glide path to the jagged earth. They were enveloped by blackness. The mouth of the underground runway swept passed them. Only the haunting glow of the instruments lit their surroundings. The faint trail of the runway lights stretched out before them, providing minimal guidance.
Hardy released his anxious grip on the stick, and he pulled it back with only the delicate touch of his index finger. The technique stayed his excitement and kept him from pulling the nose up too hard. There was very little room for mistakes inside those walls. The massive aircraft gently sank to the tarmac. There was a brief screech of tires, then the nose wheel settled to the ground. The cockpit rumbled with the solid sound of the concrete beneath the tires.
“Like a butterfly with sore feet!” Frodo smacked the top of Hardy’s helmet as he applied the brakes. “Good job!”
It was because of her petite stature of five feet, four inches, her colleagues lovingly dubbed her ‘Frodo’. The name was cemented forever in the historical annals of the Academy when she rushed to an emergency briefing with damp hair. She did not have time to tuck away her natural curls as usual.
“What is this? Fellowship of the Ringlets?” A superior commented in front of her fellow pilots. After a chorus of laughter and an informal christening with a sprinkle of stale coffee, Frodo the flight instructor was named. However, because she was superior in skill to Hardy, and because she outranked him, he always referred to her with a respectful “ma’am”. Just to be safe.
‘It's a shame that flying skills are not closely linked with drawing skills,’ Hardy thought. He snickered at her attempt to sketch the trainer on the whiteboard.
She eyed him over her shoulder. “Do you have something to share with me, Cadet?”
“No, ma’am,” he replied quickly, “Nice drawing, though… Is that a bird or a plane?”
She turned with her hands on her hips. She was trying hard to be serious, but Hardy could tell she was working to suppress a smile. “Alright,” she began, pointing to the obscure sketch in blue marker on the whiteboard, “This is a plane, not a bird! Let’s talk about….” Her voice suddenly trailed off into silence.
Hardy looked at her strangely, waiting for her to continue, until he realized she was reacting to the vibration of the room around them. He sat up straight in his chair and watched a half-empty coffee cup left on the table softly vibrate, shudder, then tip over. Hardy locked eyes with Frodo. He knew they were thinking the same thing. They sprung at the same time, Hardy violently pushing his chair out of his path.
They rushed from the briefing room to the edge of the underground tarmac and stared in disbelief. Debris from the ceiling showered down on the aircraft neatly aligned at the edge of the runway. The collapse of the stone ceiling did not register until a chunk of it hit the floor between them and shattered.
“The stairwells…” Frodo said softly.
“Let’s GO! Get to the stairwells!” She screamed as she pointed across the tarmac to the stairwell doors. “They’re reinforced!” She grabbed Hardy’s arm and pulled him with her as she started to run across the long flat surface.
Hardy was shaken to his knees in mid-stride by the unsteady ground. Frodo turned and offered her hand as he tried to get up. He reached out for it, but something smacked hard against his shoulder. He screamed. His own voice sounded hollow and thin against the thundering sounds from the trembling earth.
He felt her hands on his arm. “Get up, Cadet!”
“Yes, ma’am!” He screamed as he tried to get to his feet.
“We can’t stop here!”
“No, ma’am!” He was finally on his feet and Frodo started to turn away from him.
A flash of light suddenly engulfed them. It was surreal. It must have lasted for only a few seconds, but everything seemed to unfold very slowly. Frodo squeezed her eyes shut at the sudden assault of light. Her black, chin-length hair blew into her face.
Hardy tried to shield his eyes, but there wasn't enough time. He was lifted from his feet by a violent rush of heated air. A deafening roar followed. He was thrown against something flat and solid, it must have been the wall. The impact forced the air from his lungs. He heard the sickening crack of shattering bones.
He fell to the floor in a paralyzed heap, mercifully numb. He was embraced by the benevolent grace of blackness. For a few lingering moments, over the deafening roar of flames and the sporadic hiss of the fire extinguishing system, he could hear the calm, surreal, female voice of the computer as it urged their evacuation. Although he tried to fight it, his consciousness slowly receded into silence.
He awoke to the faint echo of a melody in a young girl’s voice. It drifted hauntingly around him, touching him briefly, then receding into the darkness. ‘Was he dead? No,’ he thought. ‘If I were dead, it wouldn’t hurt so much.’ He tried to take a breath, but he froze. Every inch of skin, muscle, and bone screamed with agony from the slight movement. He laid still, listening to the silvery voice and its eerie melody, focusing hard on his one fragile thread of comfort.
“….you shine where you
And the more I think on you the more I think long
If I had you now as I had once before
All the lords in Old England ……”
The singing paused and a cold silence was upon him. It lingered for a long moment and he felt the pounding of his heart in his ears. The tentative footsteps of a human being echoed around him and he knew for certain he was alive. Suddenly, a girl’s voice spoke out, “Hello? Is anyone there?”
There was another long pause. Hardy tried to move again. He tried to speak, but his voice failed him. He began to cough uncontrollably; the contraction of his muscles forced agonizing spasms of pain through him. He groaned. The sound scattered against the walls in a faint repercussion.
“I hear you!” came the small voice. It seemed distant now. It was fading quickly. “Say something! Where…” Before he could gather the strength to utter a word, he was pulled under again, into unconsciousness. He was swallowed into a dark, pitiful silence. It was exactly where he didn’t want to go.
Something tapped against his face. It was cold. It was wet. He struggled to reach the surface of his consciousness. He thought he opened his eyes, but there was nothing but blackness. He reacted. His flailing hand connected hard with something. He heard the piercing scream of a woman.
“Don’t fight!” The voice shouted. “Don’t fight me!”
He felt something on his face. He wanted it off, so he pulled it away. There was something around his neck! He grabbed at it. It was stiff and hard and it kept him from moving. He wanted it off, but something restrained him. He reached out with his free arm and something caught him by the wrist. He started to pull away from it and pain shot through him like lightening. It must have jerked him to his senses because the woman's voice pierced the ringing in his ears.
“Stop it!” The voice grew louder. “Stop moving! Don’t! You’ll pull out the IV!”
The commands suddenly registered with him and he froze. His breathing was rapid and strained. Its raspy sound was all he could hear in the dark.
“Easy!” The voice was strong at first, its tone forceful. It was a contradiction to its gentle nature. “Take it easy!”
“What…” His voice was rough and weak. He couldn’t force the words through his swollen throat. “I can’t see! My eyes!” He could only manage a whisper. Each word burned in his throat.
“I know! I know! It’s all right!”
Terror struck him hard. Panic seeped in as he tried desperately to catch his breath. ‘Why can’t I see? Why can’t I breathe? God, help me!’ He thought and he struggled to get to his feet. The woman's grip on his wrist tightened and she forced his arm to the floor. He felt the weight of her body across his.
“Listen to my voice!” The girl's voice was strained as she fought against him. “Listen to me! You need to slow your breathing! Stop fighting me!”
The girl’s steady words began to sink into him. He settled into stillness, his strength depleted. “Oh... oh, my God... it hurts...”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” She released her tight grasp on him. The weight of her body rose from his. She must have been sitting on his other arm because he felt the restraint lifted as she moved. “Try to breath easy.” He heard the hiss of air as something familiar was placed over his mouth and nose.
He took in a breath of air. His chest rose and he felt the agony of shattered bones within his torso. “It... hurts... to breath!” He desperately wanted the relief of a deep breath, but he could only manage short and shallow inhalations.
“That should subside. I've given you something for the pain.” She took his hand in hers, and he felt the warmth of her body beneath his palm. He felt the vibration of her voice in his fingers. “Can you feel me breathing?” She took in an exaggerated breath, sucking it through her lips so he could hear her. “Try to breathe with me!”
Her heartbeat was strong and steady, but rapid from her tangle with him. Its rhythm was constant and comforting against his palm. Her chest rose and fell with each breath. He focused on the movement. The inhale and the exhale. He tried to match his breathing with hers.
He steadied himself; his panic slowly subsided into a manageable anxiety. The tension in his body gently eased and the pain began to subside. Breathing became easier and less painful with each steady inhale.
“That’s good. Better.” He felt her fingers run over the I.V. site on his hand. She slowly pulled his arm straight and turned his palm up. He felt the agonizing restriction, the painful tightness of damaged skin as she moved him. There was a rustling of plastic. “Little stick.” The prick of a needle at the bend of his arm surprised him and he jerked in response. She tightened her grip on his arm to keep him still. She released his arm and it rested in her lap as she kept working. “You have chemical burns. I’m trying to rinse your eyes.” The fluid tapped his face again and he jerked. “It’s just saline! Water! I need you to be still!” He tried to obey her, but he suddenly realized his body was violently shivering.
He vaguely felt her fingers touch the swollen skin of his face. There was no pain when they tried to pry open his eyelids, only pressure. It was numb. When a cold jet of water found his eyeball, he felt a sharp, penetrating sting. He wanted to slap the probing hands away. Instead, he clenched his fists and squeezed them hard against the pain.
“You’re... medic?” Hardy whispered through clenched teeth. He was aware of her leaning over him. He heard the faint sound of her breathing.
“More or less.” Her voice seemed distant as she focused on her work.
“What…” He hesitated as another sharp pain shot through him, “What does that mean? More or less?”
“I know enough to be lethal. I would pipe down and let me concentrate if I were you.”
“My instruct...” Hardy tried to swallow, but his swollen throat hurt him. “There was a woman…”
“Yes, I know. I found her.”
A tense silence fell between them. When the young voice did not volunteer more information, Hardy tried to speak again, “Help… help her first.”
Hardy’s body stiffened. “…Sure?…”
“I checked her.”
“Sure?…” The distraction in her voice irritated him. He moved his hand and grabbed for her arm. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure!” The fluid stopped flowing onto his eyes when his fingers tightened around her wrist. She sounded equally irritated. “Do you know what the femoral artery is?”
Hardy was silent except for his shivering. He knew she was going to tell him.
“It’s the largest conduit for blood circulation in the lower extremities. You have one that goes down each leg. The one in her right leg is severed. Probably shrapnel from the explosion. Considering the amount of adrenaline pumping through you two, it didn’t take her long to bleed out.” She pulled her wrist free from him; the fluid started to flow over his eyes again. “I don't think she felt much. Like I said, I can’t help her.”
“Married…” he whispered. “She was getting married… next month.” Hardy felt the girl pause, but only momentarily.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly but there was little empathy in her words. “You’re the one I can help right now. If I don't get this out of your eyes, it will do more damage. Rest your airway. We’ve got to keep the swelling down. I don’t have the tools to intubate properly here.” He was relieved when he felt the fluid stop once more. “The dispatch log, was it accurate?” He heard the rustling sound of plastic or paper. She was rapidly sorting through something. “It was just you and the lieutenant. Would there be anyone else up here? Maintenance personnel? Anyone?” The rustling paused. She was waiting for his reply.
“I… I don’t know.”
“That’s okay. You’re stable now.” There was the sharp clank of metal against concrete. He sensed she was rifling around in a pack. “I need to make a sweep of the area to check for more survivors.” He felt her pull a blanket over him. He sensed it was one of the foil blankets employed by military medics. They reflected body heat with great efficiency. It crinkled slightly as she unfolded it and tucked it in around him. “Don't struggle against the restraints. Stay still. You're immobilized to protect your spine. Do you understand?”
He reached up and grasped her arm again. He was gentle this time. “I… hit you… Sorry…”
He felt her hand around his. She squeezed his hand reassuringly. “You’d be surprised how often that happens in my line of work. It was my fault. I didn’t duck in time.”
She started to move away, but he didn’t release her. “Don’t…”
“Try to rest. I won’t be gone long. You’ll be able to hear me.”
“You sing....” he rasped.
“It calms my nerves.”
“Mine... mine too.”
There was a hesitation between them. He imagined, and he hoped, his words brought a smile to her face. This helplessness, this dependence, was new and frightening to him. He desperately wanted her to stay, but he reluctantly let her go as she gently pulled away from him. Tentative footsteps marked the distance as it grew between them. He was left with only the comfort of an ethereal melody as her delicate voice echoed through the burned-out caverns of stone.
“…All the birds in the
forest they bitterly weep
Saying, ‘Where will we shelter or where will we sleep?’
For the Oak and the Ash, they are all cutten down
And the walls of bonny Portmore are all down to the ground...”
To Be Continued with Chapter 7 – Remembrance
Severely injured by a catastrophic explosion in an underground hanger, Jefferson Hardy struggles to survive the agony of his wounds. He must trust in the skills of a young, but determined rescuer. Her own struggle is to find a way out for both of them, before it's too late...