In August 1947 BOAC, what was then British Airways, ran services to and within South America under the name 'British South American Airways'. The war had produced a crop of experienced pilots, a number of large runways - which did away with the flying boat - and plenty of surplus bombers with some flying hours left, and BSAA was an 'army surplus' attempt to turn coin. The airline was equipped with the Avro Lancastrian, a pressurised civilian conversion of the WW2 Lancaster bomber.

One such was 'Stardust', which vanished into thin air whilst en route from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Santiago in Chile - a journey requiring a trip over the Andes, which at that time were shrounded in a snowstorm. Along with the five RAF crew (all war veterans), six passengers were lost; at the time it was theorised that pilot error brought on by bad weather and the as-yet-unidentified jet stream had led to the aircraft crashing abruptly into the mountains, and this theory was given weight when portions of the smashed remains of the aircraft were discovered in a glacier, perfectly preserved, in 2000. Until then, however, UFO enthusiasts wondered if there might have been a more unusual explanation, and Stardust became one of those Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World things that keep people awake at night. Stardust vanished two years after the disappearance of Flight 19, one of the cornerstones of the Bermuda Triangle, but planes go missing all the time. Stardust is remembered today for its final message.

The very last radio transmission from the aircraft was a Morse code message reading "ETA Santiago 17.45 hrs STENDEC". The final word made no sense and was not RAF jargon. The radio operator at Santiago asked Stardust's communications officer twice to repeat the final word, and recieved 'STENDEC' both times. Those seven letters have subsequently haunted people's imagination; even today nobody is entirely sure what STENDEC was supposed to mean. RAF pilots were not known for making up strange codes during their radio transmissions, and the theorised nature of the crash suggests that nobody on board was aware that things were amiss until they hit the mountains, thus ruling out a forewarning of disaster.

Several theories abound, however, based on the possibility that one or other of the radio operators were mistaken in some way, either due to inexperience (in the case of the operator in Santiago) or hypoxia. 'STENDEC' is an anagram of 'DESCENT', and in the original Morse 'STENDEC' resembles 'Stardust', the name of the aircraft. Furthermore, a minor rearrangement of some of the spaces produces 'ETA LATE', or the Morse code for 'attention', followed by 'END', followed by the Morse code for 'signing off'. All these theories suffer from the fact that RAF communications officers were trained to send Morse cleanly and without ambiguity.

And sign off the operator did, as that was the last anybody ever heard from the Stardust for over half a century, until the events recounted in the following writeup...

A Rolls Royce engine of the Stardust was discovered 53 years after the plane 'vanished'. A crash investigation team combined with members of the Argentine Army set out to collect the pieces of the engine and to search for human remains. The importance of the discovery, recovery and examination of the remaining pieces of the Stardust and its passengers would help relieve the pain of the relatives, the mystery of disappearance and the 'new' mystery of why after 53 years the Stardust was back.

Their journey started with army trucks, then at 13,000 feet mules had to take over from the vehicles and then the team had to backpack up the glacier and the great mountains of the Andes on foot. By the time they reached the stony glacier where parts of an aircraft were reported to be the team had 2 days of supplies left.

Two wheels from the plane were found and one was still intact and inflated! Finding the wheels of the aircraft was important for the 'reading' of the signature that is left behind by certain incidents. As the wheels were intact it suggested that they had been raised prior to the crash. The landing gear was not operated therefore the captain and crew were not attempting an emergency landing. On the mountain the crash team primarily examined parts of the engine to see if engine failure was responsible for the crash and the discovery of the propellers showed that they had been in motion at the time of impact. GPS technology recorded the precise spot wreckage was discovered and its location to other pieces. This is vital in an investigation of this nature as masses of metal, glass, plane seats, human remains and luggage scattered over a vast area would suggest an explosion. If the remaining pieces were found clumped together and in this case the remains found were in a square mile area, then it would appear more likely that the plane went headfirst into the mountain.

It seemed like after informing Santiago airport in Chile that they would be landing in four minutes the plane then crashed into the side of the mountain. However, the crash was roughly 50 miles away. Navigational error seemed to be a certainty but the aircraft was operated by an experienced crew and such a miscalculation seemed strange. The last message from the flight deck was S.T.E.N.D.E.C. in morse code. The receiving airport asked for confirmation of the last message and the word: S.T.E.N.D.E.C. was repeated. This was the last communication from the Stardust and is still a mystery. It became the title of a UFO comic book although the spelling was changed to Stendek.

Analysis of the weather charts from the day showed masses of clouds and storms over the mountains and the aircraft had contacted the airport to inform them that they were ascending to 24,000 feet. In 1947 not many aircraft were capable of flying at such a high level but the Stardust, a World War Two Lancaster bomber, was. The technology in the aircrafts in the 1940s was not as refined as today and weather systems at such a high altitude were not fully monitored. After the Stardust left Buenos Aires in Argentina it began its ascent to 24,000 feet to avoid the storm unaware it was flying into the path of what is now called Jet stream. This is a wind above the clouds which can reach speeds of over a hundred miles an hour. Flying against such a strong current would have slowed the plane down so that when the crew calculated the descent they believed they were clear of the Andes range, when they were still over it.

Many theories surrounding the disappearance of the Stardust circulated ranging from alien/UFOs sucking the plane and its eleven passengers into space to terrorist activity from the Argentine government. This second theory was strenghtened by the fact that one of the passengers was a Royal Messanger to the King carrying important documents from the UK to diplomats in Santiago in Chile.

Two hip bones were identified as being those of two separate women but no other recognisable bones were recovered. The surfacing of the Stardust was believed to be as a result of where it crashed. After hitting the mountain an avalanche covered the site and moved it down the mountainside. When rescue planes searched afterwards they could see no sign of a crash. The ice and snowed built up and slowly the glacier 'moved' down the mountain and as it reached the lower slopes the ice began to melt thus leaving rocks and any non ice/water matter to rise to the surface. Other parts of the Stardust will eventually be recovered as nature makes it way down the Andes mountains.



This is not a diary entry. It's a story I made up on the way home.

Though, like most stories, it's true in a universe somewhere.

pt 1.


---------

"Shut the fucking thing hard."

Where is my brain, they want to know. This is an island of light and warmth in the dark cold death outside and we are tenders of the warmth, stewards of light in the perpetual antarctic winter. Life itself is something warm and light. Like breeds like.

I reopen and then slam the thick door closed behind me. Turn around and my breath condenses in the cloud of cold I allowed into the tiny radio hut. There is barely enough room for the three of us and the gear. The air is filled with crackling static the giant aluminum bird of an antenna hovering over the small structure seems to draw from the stars themselves.

Martin, eyes on the shortwave, reaches down and cranks the heater near his feet.

"Come listen to this." Don't need to go anywhere to hear the static.

I pull off my gloves and hat. Then I toss my parka onto theirs on the bench behind me.

The walls are covered in world maps and QSL cards. A black bound log book sits unopened next to the radio control position where it looks like it's been since the 60's. The transceiver paints the air in the sounds of the ionosphere, the static hiss of the hurricane of solar wind all around the earth. On its face, numbers glow blue, 14.240. Martin and Harris are down to their fleeces. They sit on aluminum folding chairs, elbows on their knees staring at the numbers on the radio as if the answer to life's most challenging questions lay in the glowing blue.

There's no seat for me. I lean on one of the lab benches lining the room.

Then there's a tone in the hiss of white noise. Something unnatural. God's voice is vast and white, man's sharp and thin.

"There. What's that?"

"It's a carrier. Where you're listening, it could be a retiree in Chicago building himself a transceiver on his kitchen table."

They exchange disgusted looks.

"It's true," I add, as if I made a habit of wandering around town making up shit. "By the way, are either of you guys licensed? You're not supposed to--"

The carrier bursts into a modulated pulse. An interrupted beam of information carried in a thin tone like the a kid blowing a tin whistle.

"There. What's that?" Harris says.

"It's code," I say, knowing they know. Trying to lighten the mood.

"Yeah. What's it say, wiseass?" Martin says. He takes his eyes from the numbers and plants his gaze on my face to let me know he's serious.

"Gimme a pen--" I say, and he shoves a chewed plastic bic into my fist. Scanning the benches for a scrap of paper I can find nothing but the log book. The last page comes out blank.

"I can't copy code unless I'm writing. It's weird but it's the way I learned. Haven't done this since I got my license when I was fifteen..."

"Will you shut up? You're missing it."

I want to tell them it doesn't matter, the message is repeating. But they can't hear it. I write down the letters formed by the pulsing sound, trying to keep my mind out of the process of decoding. That's the way it works. If you think about what you're writing, you lose track. Just write.

One letter confuses me, but when I calm my mind, I remember. When the signal stops the waves of a static ocean fill the room.

Martin grabs the paper from me and looks at it. He holds it up to Harris.

"Is this right?"

Harris says, "Holy shit," and blanches.

What the hell did I write? I try to get the log page back from Martin, but he won't let go. I can see the writing, though.

S T E N D E C

"What's up with that?" I ask them.

Martin shuts off the radio. Harris stares at his feet.

It's Sunday. I don't get any more time off than anyone else. I got up early as a favor. I don't have to be standing here.

They know it. "You ever been to Pole?" Martin says, when he can't fiddle with the radio anymore.

"No."

"Wanna go?" says Harris.

"Sure," I say, figuring one favor deserves another. "You can get me on a flight next season?"

"How bout today?"

Now I'm pissed. "Last time I do a favor for you assholes."

Martin gets up when I collect my parka and reach for the door. Minus fifty or not, I'm outta there.

"Hang on. Wait."

What makes me stop? I should just go. Brunch will open in an hour.

"Something's going on at Pole. That message came from there."

"So?" I say, figuring it's some sort of shorthand these guys know. "We all heard. They got hacked again. They're off line, as usual. Ridiculous panic response by NSF."

Harris says, "This isn't just an interruption in e-mail. Arrested some kid in Munich. Semi-violent splinter group. Ex-Greenpeacers. Wrecked the science. Shut down all the environmentals."

"The what?" I ask.

"Everything's on the net down there. New system in the new station. He cut off the generators and they cold soaked before they could get them restarted."

I hadn't heard that.

"We would have had forty-eight dead polies. Thank god the backup generators weren't effected," Martin adds.

"So they've pulled the plug on all the satcom. There's no comms to Pole."

I say, "So? They've got radios up the wazoo," because I know they're going to overreact like everyone else. I say. "What's the problem?"

"We don't know. We can't get through to anyone. The best we can figure is that when the generators went down and came back up, the surge burned out most of the electronics. So they must be stuck with an old military radio from the old station."

"They've been sending morse code for the last twelve hours. You're the only guy in town who understands it."

"Well, if they send more, you know where to find me," I tell them. "I'm happy to help."

"Yeah, well," Martin says. He takes my parka from my hands and sets it on the bench. He moves like a man defusing a bomb.

"We think the comms guy is really sick. Hurt maybe."

"Holy shit," comes out of my mouth. Greg. I know Greg. We flew in together. Spent a week of boomerangs in Cheech. Georgia Tech. Taking a year off between school and a real job. Good guy.

"We don't know for sure, but from what we're getting..."

"STENDEC? Look, why don't you just get McAllister on the line? This is station manager stuff."

"That was McAllister. He's the only one on station who knows code."

"What's it mean?"

They didn't have to tell me they didn't know. I could see it on their faces. Guys in charge of remote outposts learn survival comes in the knowing. Gotta know everything, all the time.

We workers figured out long ago how to tell when they didn't. That's how things got done. Support the bosses when they don't know what the fuck is going on.

"We need someone to go down there who can fix the radios. Maybe knows code. If that's the only way you can communicate, at least you can talk directly to Denver."

"Yeah, in October," I say, pointing to the calendar on the wall. "Four months when the hercs start flying."

"We have someone who will take you in by twin otter."

"Sure," I say. This is how people get killed. Bosses with big ideas, poorly thought out. Just shuttle a guy to pole when the air temp is so cold all the plastic and rubber freezes on the engines and the plane falls out of the sky.

"I know what you're thinking," Harris says. " You can land. It's no colder on the ground than it is at altitude. The plane can make it just fine. You just can't take off again."

"So you'll be there for the rest of the season."

"And if I say, 'no?'" I ask.

"Then we pray we're just being paranoid. Wait till October. Hopefully someone's not sick and dying."

"That's some load to heap on me. I'm not a doctor," I remind them.

"Who did what has nothing to do with anything. This is what's now. We need your help. You don't have to do anything. You can go back to downloading anti virus programs or whatever it is you do over there at Crary."

I put on my parka. Slide on my gloves. "I gotta tell you now? Right now?"

"Thinking about it's going to make it easier to decide? This is the ice," Harris said, as if I didn't know.

I pull on my hat. Then like all the important decisions I've ever made in my life, on impulse, "I'll go if you tell me what you think STENDEC is about," figuring they couldn't possibly know anything.

Martin reaches under one of the benches and finds a small black briefcase. As he pulls out a notebook, Harris says, "Two things. It was the last radio transmission from a British airliner flying from Argentina to Chile back in the late 40's. They got lost in the Andes. The control op at the airport in Chile copied 'STENDEC' three times before the plane disappeared. Nobody knows what it means."

"And this." Martin hands me the notebook. On the front is Ted McAllister's name and Polar Services employee number.

I leaf through it and see what appears to me the man's diary from the prior season. Dates followed by paragraphs of text. Weather reports. Work logs. Arrivals and departures of planes.

"Here," Martin says. There's a yellow post-it stuck to one of the pages. Martin tabs to it.

On the top of the page in large block letters is the word S-T-E-N-D-E-C.

Underneath, in McAllister's hand--

"Midwinter, 2002. I have learned the code STENDEC for the transferral of matter between planes of state. In those days there were giants, and creatures we now call dragons. The land of the dead co exists and shares space with us so that nothing is ever lost. Dragons, and not apes, our predecessors. The transponder is irrelevant. Love is eternal and she is with us and will always be here. So each death brings us closer, so each love, immortality. The apostle John's spirits remain high. He has lost nothing, as he sees. Cathrine is with us always."

There's nothing else in the book.

"McAllister may have lost it," Martin says. "So Special Ops Jim is the pilot. He's a medic. It will be the two of you."

"Special Jim? The nutcase who dresses as Little Bo Peep on Halloween? He flies planes? You're kidding me. I thought he was a plumber."

Martin smiles for the first time. "So you'll go?"

And I really don't want to.

But I told them I would.

This is the ice. There is nothing to lose because there is nothing.

"Sure."





Next Episode: We don't pay you to think. We pay you to know.

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